Keep Asia high on foreign policy list

By Lee Hamilton
Oct 21 2008

 A few years back, Foreign Policy magazine asked more than 1,000 international relations experts what would be the most important region strategically for the U.S. in 2025. The answer? Asia, responded more than 60 percent.


Only when there are crises — North Korea's nuclear test, the Saffron Revolution in Myanmar (Burma), or civil unrest in Tibet — does Asia grab headlines. This will have to change. Though the U.S. remains the pre–eminent military power, America's relative power has declined, while the power of China and other Asian nations has grown. The painful economic adjustments we face reflect the shift of the center of global affairs from the Atlantic to the Pacific.

Asian economies produce 30 percent of global exports and have a large share of the world's savings and a two–way trade with the U.S. that is more than $1 trillion.

The region has half the world's population and six of the world's 10 largest countries. India and China are rising powers with nuclear arsenals, modernizing militaries, booming economies and growing footprints in Africa and Latin America. It is home to some of America's strongest allies in the postwar era, like Japan, South Korea and Australia. The recent U.S.–India nuclear agreement is the keystone of improved U.S.–Indian relations.

Managing the U.S.–China relationship is the most important and most challenging task in Asia. To the dismay of some of its neighbors, China's growth continues at a blistering pace. Taiwan remains the most dangerous potential flashpoint in the region. The U.S. has agreed to sell Taiwan $6.4 billion in arms, eliciting strong disapproval from China, including the cancellation of military and diplomatic meetings in protest.

Despite the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, we cannot continue to shortchange Asia when it comes to diplomacy. What should the U.S. do? Watch our rhetoric. We should not define Asian countries as threats or competitors for geopolitical supremacy.

To maintain peace and stability, a web of Asian multilateral organizations has developed. Some of these groups include the U.S.; others exclude it. These all present opportunities for the United States to engage Asia and its sub–regions; to address issues, such as climate change and economic stability. And advancing human rights will not be possible without developing a regional consensus. U.S. participation can help facilitate the construction of a broader and more cohesive Asian community.

We must also work harder to maintain and strengthen our bilateral relations. Ties between Washington and Seoul have soured, with a stagnant free–trade agreement and public demonstrations in Korea against the importation of U.S. beef. In the Six Party talks, Japan often feels out of the loop. On North Korea's nuclear program, we must remain patient and engaged. Progress is halting and frustrating as we engage in a step–by–step process toward its denuclearization.

There are other issues: counter–terrorism, cooperation on energy security, the Doha Round of trade negotiations — as the financial crisis has revealed for all, the U.S. is tied to Asia in fundamental ways. Meeting the region's economic challenges and building on gains in human rights are opportunities to advance collective interests.

In 2001, many analysts said we were entering the “Asian Century.” That remains to be seen, but we ignore the trend lines at our own peril.

(Lee Hamilton is Director of the Center on Congress at Indiana University and Director of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, D.C. He was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives for 34 years.)