April 23, 2014
The president’s hosts should ask what they can do for America, writes Clyde Prestowitz
President Barack Obama will spend the next few days on an awkward mission to Asia. Essentially, he is going to try to tell the Koreans, Japanese, Filipinos and Malaysians that their lives and welfare are more precious to America than those of the Afghans, Ukrainians and Syrians to whose rescue America has recently declined to come. That may not be the truth.
The White House says the president will reassure our Asian allies that they are the country’s top foreign policy priority and that America will act as a protection against the power and influence of China. It says the US will further integrate its economy with those of Asia by concluding the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal with 11 North American and Asia-Pacific countries. This is in response to Asian leaders’ laments that they feel neglected by Washington and uncertain of its commitments to them.
At first glance, both the Asian complaints and the new American response seem logical and straightforward. In fact, they are totally backwards. Listening to the Asians, you would never know that the US Seventh Fleet has been stationed in Yokosuka, Japan, and tasked with patrolling the western Pacific for the past 69 years; or that there are 30,000 American troops stationed in South Korea and another 50,000 in Japan; or that the South Korean army is under US command in time of war; or that America is committed to the unilateral defence of Japan and South Korea under its mutual security treaties with them. That means America is committed to defend Japan and South Korea if they are attacked but those nations are not committed in any way to defend America if it is attacked.
So it appears the US is more lonely and neglected than any of its Asian allies. We need to ask what they do for America: why does Washington have these allies? Indeed, perhaps in light of the lack of a reciprocal defence commitment they would better be called protectorates. Nor are they even allies of one another. Japan and South Korea are constantly bickering and do not even exchange national security intelligence directly. Rather, they speak to each other through the offices of the US. The Philippines is weak and unable to provide much to America, except perhaps military bases that are not really needed; and Malaysia, while a friendly country, provides little of any strategic value.
Similarly, in the economic realm, the flow of benefits has been heavily in favour of the Asia-Pacific countries. Most of them have based their development on mercantilist export-led growth policies, using protectionism and currency manipulation to generate huge trade surpluses with the US.
The crucial question is: in response to what threat do these countries need reassurance of support? The obvious answer is China, against whose rising power the Asians want a counterweight. And indeed, the strategic “pivot” to Asia that Mr Obama proclaimed early in his first term is a response to this wish.
To read article in its entirety in The Financial Times, please click here.