Ilya Kravchenko: Asia-Pacific – a special region for US foreign policy
Despite an active domestic political life, primarily related to the presidential elections in November this year, the US elite continues following the foreign policy strategy and realizing the US national interests abroad. Recently, such topics as the Middle East, the world terroristic threat, and the migration crisis have been dominating in the news line. The USA is participating practically in all these issues. The question often arises: what will the White House and the Department of State be concentrated on? Is there any region the political elite of the USA is paying a special attention to, beside the Middle East that is so actual nowadays?
Studying The National Security Strategy of 2015, the general outline of the main foreign policy document of the USA becomes immediately clear. “The question is never whether America should lead, but how we lead.”, reading it, it becomes evident that in fact it seems not so important what region Barack Obama’s administration will interact verbally with, because it should lead in all directions according to the definition.
But, if one rates the priority directions of the foreign policy accordingly to the text of The Strategy, then one can see them arranging in the following order: Asia-Pacific, then, Europe, the Middle East, and North Africa. North America and South America take the last place. Therefore, judging by the text of the document, we can draw the conclusion on the priority of Asia-Pacific for the White House in building its foreign policy.
Definitely, each year of his presidency, Barack Obama made official visits to the countries of this region, that is, more often than to any other regions. Not so long ago, the American President represented the USA at summit of the countries of the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) that, for the first time, took place on the territory of the United States. The said organization occupies a special place in the US foreign policy as it represents a certain counterbalance to the Chinese influence in Asia. In the text of the final mutual declaration, the respectful attitude towards the sovereignty, observation of the norms of the international law, and assurance of the regional security are emphasized. It means the confrontation between China and other countries in the region. One should remember about a huge economic potential that the American companies can use in case of the active cooperation with ASEAN. Moreover, some members of the organization have territorial disputes with China, besides, the PRC’s position on the prohibition of the free circulation of the ships through the South-China sea is of particular concern for the USA.
In fact, at present ASEAN is a unique institution that plays a central role in the coordination of the effort of local governments to overcome various difficulties. China is the most important player that tries to dominate in all spheres not only in East Asia, but, without any exaggeration, in the whole world. The scales of the Chinese economy together with challenges to regional security are the main reasons why ASEAN acquires such importance.
A neorealist model of the establishment of the foreign policy that has recently been dominating in Washington, evidences on the necessity of the formation of the regional balance of forces. As it is known, states and their unions are the main personages for neorealists.
Their main objectives are the protection of national interests, state security, and retention of the status quo in international relations. Following this logic, the White House should participate not only in unions, organizations, forums directed against the regional hegemon, but cooperate with the hegemon itself. During the first term of his presidency, Barack Obama already established contacts with such large regional association as the East Asia Summit (EAS). First in 2010, the then Secretary of State, and currently, a potential presidential candidate, Hillary Clinton, represented the USA there. After that, in 2011, Barack Obama himself was present at summit in Indonesia where the United States became a regular member of the EAS.
The fact that four ASEAN members have signed the trade treaty on the Trans-Pacific Partnership is very important as this is the project that Mr. Obama has been trying to realize from the very beginning of his presidency. In case of its ratification by the Congress, the treaty will become one of the major foreign policy achievements of the 44th leader of the White House.
The Trans-Pacific Partnership is the evolution of the Trans-Pacific Strategic Economic Partnership existing since 2006 – an organization the founders of which were Singapore, Brunei, New Zealand, and Chili. All these countries have strong partnership relations with the USA, they have considered this formation as a huge potential to realize their national interests in the region. One of the main objectives of the Trans-Pacific Partnership is the formation of the free trade zone, the absence of China among future members tells us about a powerful challenge the USA throws to the Celestial Empire.
In November this year, there will be the presidential elections in the USA. The main candidates (H.Clinton and B.Sanders from the Democrats, D.Trump and T.Cruz from the Republicans) for the presidency are against the ratification of the treaty on the Trans-Pacific Partnership. The main argument against Obama’s initiative is the factor of the employment of the US citizens. The free movement of the work force, especially cheap one, can cause the loss of work places among the electors. In the current situation, even the President’s associates cannot afford themselves to take the risk of losing political scores, if they state their support of this treaty. In other words, Obama has a little time for his project to be supported by the legislative branch.
Speaking about the Asia-Pacific direction of the US foreign policy, we should consider the Russian factor. In this situation, Moscow is an experienced player, and this fact is taken into account by Washington. The actions of the USA demonstrate a confident following of the concept of strategic dominance in the region. The USA is cooperating more actively with the traditional partners of Russia: Vietnam and India, the American arms companies have been concluding multibillion contracts displacing the Russian arms from its traditional market. This autumn Obama is going to make his first presidential visit to Laos, it also evidences about clear intentions of the USA to build the relations with this long-time Russia’s partner at a new level. A special position in creation of the strategic line in the Asia-Pacific region is shown by the unwillingness of the White House to involve Russia into the project of the Trans-Pacific Partnership.
Summing up, we can definitely say that Asia-Pacific occupies a special place in the US foreign policy even in comparison to the Middle East, Europe, or other regions. If the treaty on the Trans-Pacific Partnership does not enter into force, the USA, in any case, will continue following the strategy of strengthening its positions in Asia, and if we consider it more generally, of dominance in the Pacific region.
Ilya Kravchenko, Ph.D. in political science, Lecturer at the Department of International Security, History and Archives Institute, Russian State University for the Humanities.