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."

Given mutual mistrust between China and the United States, it's hard to envision Barack Obama and Hu Jintao meeting off the coast of Okinawa to sketch out a common vision of the Asia-Pacific. But the past week suggested the United States has much to gain diplomatically by outlining a future for Asia-Pacific order based on adherence to common multilateral principles. Such a "Pacific Charter" would initially have four points:

  • Freedom of the seas and multilateral resolution of maritime disputes. The strategic and resource-rich South China Sea has emerged as the region's most significant flashpoint. While China is not the only assertive player here, its aggressive territorial claims, extreme rhetoric, and naval modernization make it essential for the United States to redouble its historic support for freedom of navigation, including through the deployment of the U.S. Navy. The United States must also continue to insist--as the president did in Bali--that maritime disputes be handled not bilaterally but multilaterally through EAS and the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea. (The U.S. position would be more credible if it finally ratified that treaty.)
  • Free trade across the Asia-Pacific: The United States must regain its historic status as the world's leading champion of multilateral trade liberalization and resist the world's fragmentation into competing trading and currency blocs. But with the WTO Doha round in the doldrums, regionalism must be a big part of the picture. The TPP, as the most encompassing regional proposal under consideration, is vastly preferable to more cookie cutter arrangements, centered on China. The news that Japan is now interested in participating, makes completing the TPP a first-order priority. As to whether China might eventually join the TPP, the White House has taken the brilliant tack of placing the ball in Beijing's court. If it aspires for TPP membership, the Obama administration has communicated that China will need to bring its economy up to international standards and norms and embrace true reciprocity and non-discrimination--by ceasing its currency manipulation, ending subsidies to state-owned enterprises and protecting intellectual property rights.
  • Cooperative security to address transnational threats: In the absence of a regional collective security arrangement, which is unlikely to emerge in the near future, the U.S. alliance structure remains essential to ensure regional stability in the Asia-Pacific, and to reassure neighbors troubled by China's rise. Both the president and the Secretary of Defense have emphasized that cutbacks in U.S. defense spending will not be allowed to weaken U.S. security posture in East Asia. At the same time, the United States should promote increased region-wide cooperation, including with China, to address a growing list of transnational threats including terrorism and crime, maritime piracy, the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, pandemic diseases, the consequences of climate change, and natural disasters.
  • Human rights and democracy as inalienable: Finally, the United States must continue to support the rights of all peoples in the Asia-Pacific to individual liberties, including the right to select their leaders freely. Political developments from South Korea to Indonesia have given the lie to arguments that purported "Asian values" are incompatible with rule by the consent of the governed. No doubt, progress may be slow in coming--not least in China and Burma. But as FDR explained in 1941, it was "a good thing to have principles" toward which all nations must aim. And over time, the Pacific Charter might, like the Helsinki process during the Cold War, assist internal groups struggling for liberty in the world's remaining authoritarian states. Secretary Clinton's upcoming trip to Burma is an excellent step in implicitly suggesting progress towards political liberalization in the region will be both noticed and rewarded by the United States.

"America's Pacific Century," as envisioned by Secretary Clinton, will not come into being overnight. But that should not stop the Obama administration from offering a clear U.S. statement of the principles, which together constitute a new Pacific Charter.

This article originally appeared at CFR.org, an Atlantic partner site.