October 27, 2011
U.S. RE-ENGAGES WITH EAST ASIA
Vice President of Strategic Intelligence Rodger Baker explains how U.S. re-engagement with East Asia, which is a critical economic component, could fuel regional competition with China.
Editor’s Note: Transcripts are generated using speech-recognition technology. Therefore, STRATFOR cannot guarantee their complete accuracy.
U.S. President Barack Obama is preparing for a series of visits throughout East Asia. In mid-November, he will be visiting several of the East Asian countries, as well as attending to the APEC summit in Hawaii and the East Asia summit in Bali, Indonesia. The trip is being seen as a key part of U.S. re-engagement in East Asia. In many ways, this term "re-engagement" is somewhat misleading -- the U.S. never really disengaged from East Asia. But there's a perception that the U.S. interest in the region has been lower than it was in the past. In the immediate post-Cold War period, the United States really did not have a strategic focus anywhere in the world. In the post 9/11 period, the U.S. was obviously focused very heavily upon the Middle East. During that same time period, the Chinese began to expand rapidly in their economic activity. And the perception in the region is that there's now an unbalanced structure that China has in many ways become too strong economically and that the United States has not maintained a position in there to balance out this rising China. And with Japan's economy continuing to remain in malaise, Japan has been unable also to provide that stabilizing force.
In many ways, as the United States looks at the world, it sees East Asia as one of its highest potential economic opportunities. By the mid-90s, containerized shipping from the United States and to the United States across the Pacific had basically equaled containerized shipping across the Atlantic. By the late 2000s, the Trans-Pacific accounted for nearly 2/3 of U.S. containerized shipping. So we see a much stronger role for East Asia in U.S. trade for both imports and exports. This is the place where the United States would like to be able to expand. One of the key elements to this is going to be the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). This is, in essence, a free trade agreement of the Pacific. Critical to this is Japan's participation. While there are a lot of other countries that are or will be involved in these TPP negotiations, Japan really is the linchpin for the United States -- it is the large economy sitting in Asia, and it is one that the U.S. wants to reintegrate within that trade agreement and within that framework.
In Japan, there's some reticence to joining into this. We see the prime minister perhaps more interested in working with Obama to bring this about, but we see a lot of resistance from other elements of the political spectrum and particularly from agriculture in Japan. And this is something that seems to come up pretty regularly in U.S. free trade agreements -- the question of agriculture.
In the United States, there is also resistance to free trade agreements, but with the passage of the Korus FTA, the Colombian and the Panama free trade agreements it seems that there is some space for momentum, some potential for the president to be able to make progress on this proposal.
Conspicuously absent from any of the early forms of these TPP discussions is China. This is a free trade agreement that in many ways doesn't recognize China as potentially being part, and even with some of the smaller players the U.S. is getting some resistance because of negotiations over what role state-owned enterprises may play. If China ever gets drawn into this, it will be in a manner that tries to deal with the benefits the state-owned enterprises gain. Not only with the TPP but with the entire concept of U.S. re-engagement in the region, the Chinese see this as some counter to Beijing's economic success and to Beijing's interests.
We're going to see as the U.S. continues to become more active politically, militarily and economically in the region, we're going to see the Chinese pushing back. We're going to see the Chinese work with some of the East Asian countries -- maybe give them more incentives to pull closer to China and try to maintain that level of influence. And so as the U.S. pulls out of Iraq, as the U.S. reduces its forces in Afghanistan, it may have the bandwidth to be able to start shifting attention to other areas of the world. They have identified East Asia as a primary place to look, and, in doing so, we're going to start seeing some tensions play out, I think, between the United States and between the Chinese in this area where China feels is really its sphere of influence.