Paradigm Shift: Forward-Deployed American Diplomacy in Asia

By Ernie Bower, Senior Adviser & Director, Southeast Asia Program, Center for Strategic & International Studies

Experts identify trends by defining inflection points at which dynamics change and a new paradigm takes hold. As U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton embarks on her sixth trip to Asia, and President Obama prepares for his second visit to the region, the outline of a U.S. strategy for Asia is being revealed. A new chapter is being written, which could be entitled “Forward-Deployed Diplomacy.”

Looking back, the point of departure for the new dynamic was Secretary Clinton’s strong intervention backed by a consensus of concerned partners at the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) in Hanoi in late July.

The determination to speak directly and clearly on the South China Sea issue at the ARF defined a real and renewed American commitment to substantive involvement not only in the creation of a new trade and security architecture in the Asia Pacific, but whenever and wherever discussions of issues of interest to the United States in the Asia Pacific take place. At the same venue, China punctuated its remarkable two decade charm offensive toward Southeast Asia by misjudging how it is perceived by its neighbors, and overreacting to a unified expression of will to work multilaterally, in accordance with international law, to resolve disputes in the region. China’s unmasking tapped into atavistic anxieties about how it might pursue its core interests among the ASEAN countries, just as Japan and Korea were getting in touch with those very same concerns over China’s response to the Senkaku/Daioyu Islands and its handling of North Korea following the sinking of the Cheonan.

Clinton’s words were instructive. They were not words that could be uttered by a principal who was not willing to back them up. The Obama Administration had decided to embark on a forward-deployed diplomatic push towards Asia.Trips by the Secretaries of State and Defense and by President Obama can be understood in this context. Secretary Clinton and Gates have visited Asia regularly and with purpose. Three criteria supported the decision to join the East Asia Summit (EAS), and informed Secretary Gates’ enthusiastic response to Vietnam’s invitation to join the ASEAN Defense Ministers’ Meeting Plus:

  1. Recognition that ASEAN would be the core of these new structures;
  2. Understanding that structures would be ineffective unless ASEAN is strengthened; and,
  3. Commitment to substantively deepen and strengthen ties with ASEAN and its key members.


Between them, Secretary Clinton and President Obama will visit four of the ten ASEAN countries on their trips over the next two weeks. Secretary Clinton’s trip includes seven countries in Asia, one of the most extensive visits to the region of any American secretary of state. She arrived in Vietnam over the weekend not only to accept ASEAN’s invitation to join the EAS, but also to hold another meeting of the Lower Mekong Initiative, a smart partnership with four mainland Southeast Asia countries – Cambodia, Laos, Thailand and Vietnam – focused on sustainable development, environmental issues, energy and climate change. The Vietnam visit further cemented strengthening U.S.-Vietnam bilateral ties marking American commitment to finding alignment with one of ASEAN’s most enthusiastic members. She will also visit Guam, Cambodia, Malaysia, Papua New Guinea, New Zealand and Australia. In each venue, Secretary Clinton is making notable progress in advancing US ties with important partners in the Asia Pacific.

For his part, President Obama has accepted responsibility for strengthening two vitally important relationships with India and Indonesia, respectively the second and fourth largest countries in the world and the first and third largest democracies. The India relationship is solid and getting stronger. The Indonesia relationship is one that the Obama Administration wants to transform in the same way that the Bush Administration transformed ties with India. President Obama will launch the Comprehensive Partnership with his counterpart President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono in Jakarta. The pair will then travel to Korea for the G-20 Summit, and onwards to Japan for the APEC Leaders’ Summit.

This year is ending well for the United States in Asia, but there are two questions Asian leaders will have for Secretary Clinton and President Obama: 1) is the US economy on a steady path to recovery; and 2) can you resume a leadership position on trade?

The acid test for sustained U.S. engagement in Asia is a healthy and growing American economy, and passage of the US Korea Free Trade Agreement (KORUS). Asia knows that if President Obama is willing – after the U.S. midterm elections tomorrow – to spend real political capital on KORUS, then the Transpacific Partnership (TPP) becomes a real and meaningful negotiation. If he is not, the U.S. strategy for engaging Asia, with ASEAN as a fulcrum, will be incomplete and unconvincing.

July was an inflection point for a new paradigm of enhanced U.S, commitment and engagement in Asia. If the Administration is able to sustain and advance economic recovery and move on trade, Hillary Clinton’s legacy as Secretary of State will be that of the forward-deployed diplomat, who recovered Asia for the United States at the outset of the 21st century.


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