Obama's Plan for America's Pacific Century

Like the U.S.-European Atlantic Charter of 1941, a "Pacific Charter" could help establish the U.S. as an Eastern power

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Leaders line up for a group photo at the East Asian Summit and ASEAN Summit in Nusa Dua, Bali November 19, 2011 / Reuters

Barack Obama's triumphant Asia-Pacific tour was a major foreign policy achievement for the president. By bolstering security alliances with pivotal nations and promoting a regional free trade area, he left no doubt that--after a costly decade of distraction in Iraq and Afghanistan--"The United States is a Pacific power, and we are here to stay." The trip also underscored just how much China's dramatic rise has unsettled its neighbors, both in the realms of economics and security.

But President Obama did more than offer deft reassurance to U.S. allies. He articulated a political vision for the Asia-Pacific as an open system in which all countries (and notably China) "play by the rules" and no single country (China, again) throws its weight around. His message was implicit but unmistakable: It's time for an "Atlantic Charter" for a Pacific Century.

Indeed, the president's tour had echoes of August 1941. Seventy years ago, as the fascist powers ran rampant, FDR and Winston Churchill met aboard a ship off the coast of Newfoundland. Their goal was to give hope to a world confronting the Axis nightmare of military aggression, political tyranny, and closed economic blocs. Their answer was to promulgate an alternative vision around which peace- and liberty-loving nations could rally. The "Atlantic Charter" did just that. It envisioned an open and non-discriminatory world order based on principles of collective security, multilateral trade, self-determination, and freedom of the seas.

The charter's principles, quickly endorsed by the anti-Axis coalition, would inform U.S. plans for the major postwar multilateral organizations, including the United Nations, the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade, the World Bank, and the International Monetary Fund. Even after the outbreak of the Cold War, Atlantic Charter principles survived within the Free World.

Today's global environment is far more benign than 1941, of course. But China's dramatic rise and assertive behavior have sowed doubts about its commitment to the principles that have underpinned the Western-dominated liberal order since 1945.The United States and China's neighbors are asking the same questions: Is China a status quo power, seeking only modest reforms to an order that has permitted its dramatic rise? Or is it a deeply revisionist one, skeptical of existing norms of behavior and determined to transform regional and global order in narrow self-interest?

The jury is out on whether China will become a "responsible stakeholder." Nevertheless, the Asia-Pacific desperately needs "rules of the road" to govern its security, political, economic, and maritime relations. Negotiating those principles and norms, however, will not be easy.

For decades, Asia-Pacific security has been underpinned by a "hub-and-spoke" system of alliances between the United States, at the core, and Japan, South Korea, Australia, New Zealand, Thailand, Singapore, and the Philippines, among others. China's aggressive behavior in 2010 and its bellicose rhetoric regarding the South China Sea have only reinforced the desire of Pacific allies both new and old for a forward U.S. military presence. President Obama's announcement that U.S. marines would be permanently deployed in Australia offered critical reassurance to nations hedging against China's rise.

At the same time, many U.S. allies are being pulled into China's economic orbit, given that juggernaut's voracious growth. Until recently, the United States appeared to be ceding Asian-Pacific economic leadership to China, effectively allowing Beijing to dominate emerging regional economic architectures that excluded Washington. The president's decision that the United States should attend the East Asia Summit (EAS) and become a permanent member of that group, coming on the heels of his vocal endorsement of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) in Honolulu, signaled U.S. determination to prevent the emergence of a China Inc. economic bloc. In the words of Professor Carlyle A. Thayer, the United States has "turned the multilateral tables on China."

Presented by

Stewart M. Patrick is a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations (where he writes the blog  The Internationalist) and Director of the Program on International Institutions and Global Governance.

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