Dispatch February 2009

Hillary's Road Trip

The itinerary for Clinton's first overseas trip as Secretary of State signals that Asia is the strategic focal point of this century

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has chosen Asia as the destination for her first overseas trip. Starting this Sunday, she’ll be on a week-long trip to Japan, South Korea, China, and Indonesia. This has significance for several reasons.

Asian economies have been dramatically expanding since the 1970s – no surprise there. But what is less widely recognized is their equally dramatic military expansion, which has transformed them from low-tech land forces to high-tech, civilian-military, air and sea post-industrial complexes. Asia is bristling with nationalism and weaponry, even as Europe drifts into functional pacifism (despite its contribution to NATO forces in Afghanistan). It is this joining of economic might with military might that makes Asia the strategic focal point of the new century.

The Bush Administration understood this reality, but could not address it because it was preoccupied with Iraq and Afghanistan. The new Obama Administration is also preoccupied with Iraq and Afghanistan. But whereas former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice was running all over the world on her own, the Obama White House has reorganized the top levels of the State Department so that certain issues, like the Greater Middle East, can be delegated to special envoys, allowing Clinton to give Asia the attention it deserves.

The Bush strategy was to leverage Japan and India militarily and diplomatically against a rising China, even as it sought good relations with Beijing. President Obama will do the same – for there really is no other choice. The difference will be in the energy applied to the task. Half of life is showing up, as the cliché goes, and Secretary Clinton has signaled with her first trip that she plans to show up often in Asia.

A measure of the new administration’s realization of the importance and nuances of Asia is demonstrated by Clinton’s decision to add Indonesia to the itinerary. Indonesia is crucial for many more reasons than the fact that President Obama went to school there for a few years as a child. It is the largest Muslim country in the world and the fourth most populous one. It commands the narrow Strait of Malacca, which is the world’s energy highway, where supertankers transport Middle Eastern oil to the burgeoning middle class fleshpots of the Pacific Rim. Thailand – Southeast Asia’s former political linchpin – is polarized and increasingly unstable, and Malaysia and Singapore are facing their own difficult political transitions, but Indonesia seems to be on its way to becoming an authentically stable Muslim democracy.

Indeed, if one were to describe the first Bush term as having been about the War on Terror, and the second Bush term as having been about the spread of freedom and democracy, then one might say that Indonesia perfectly followed the former president’s example: It captured, prosecuted, and executed the perpetrators of the Bali terrorist attack of 2002, and then went on to temper the rages of radicalism through electoral politics. More than any other country, Indonesia exemplifies Bush’s Wilsonian vision, even though Bush himself was too bogged down elsewhere to take notice. Obama and Clinton will take notice, as evinced by the itinerary of the secretary’s first trip abroad.

In Indonesia, Islam is a religion and not a whole way of life: It is only one aspect of a heterodox society that still has Hindu and Buddhist underpinnings from earlier phases of its history. Radicalized societies like Saudi Arabia and Pakistan represent Islam’s past. Indonesia, where Islam must compete in the battle of ideas with secular and nationalist ideologies, represents its best case scenario for the future.

On a more straightforward strategic level, because Southeast Asia has become an area of intensive Chinese commercial expansion, the best way for the new administration to subtly and responsibly counter China’s growing influence is by regularly visiting this region, which Indonesia dominates geographically in a maritime sense. Indonesia, Thailand, Singapore, and the other countries of the region all quietly appreciate America’s military and diplomatic presence, for it serves as a power buffer against China, while in no way threatening their own sovereignty, since the United States has no territorial claims here.

And so, Indonesia should emerge as a thematic country for Obama’s first term: a place to be emphasized by administration officials in their rhetoric, and returned to in person. Secretary Clinton will be showing up in Asia, early on and dramatically in her tenure. That, by itself, is a big step.

Presented by

Robert D. Kaplan is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and a senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security.

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