There have been major speeches in the last week or so, indicating a growing commitment from the USA to economic and cultural growth in the Asia and Pacific Regions (APAC), and there have been and will be others as the series of meetings of national leaders continues.
President Obama addressed the Australian parliament on Thursday:
I’d like to address the larger purpose of my visit to this region — our efforts to advance security, prosperity and human dignity across the Asia Pacific.
For the United States, this reflects a broader shift. After a decade in which we fought two wars that cost us dearly, in blood and treasure, the United States is turning our attention to the vast potential of the Asia Pacific region.
As President, I have, therefore, made a deliberate and strategic decision — as a Pacific nation, the United States will play a larger and long-term role in shaping this region and its future, by upholding core principles and in close partnership with our allies and friends.
US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton addressed the East-West Centre on the eve of the APEC meeting on 10 November:
Now from the very beginning, the Obama Administration embraced the importance of the Asia Pacific region. So many global trends point to Asia. It’s home to nearly half the world’s population, it boasts several of the largest and fastest-growing economies and some of the world’s busiest ports and shipping lanes, and it also presents consequential challenges such as military build-ups, concerns about the proliferation of nuclear weapons, natural disasters, and the world’s worst levels of greenhouse gas emissions.
It is becoming increasingly clear that in the 21st century, the world’s strategic and economic centre of gravity will be the Asia Pacific, from the Indian subcontinent to the western shores of the Americas. And one of the most important tasks of American statecraft over the next decades will be to lock in a substantially increased investment – diplomatic, economic, strategic, and otherwise – in this region.
The opportunities being created in established, developing, opening and growing economies, including China, India, Malaysia, South Korea, Vietnam, Cambodia and many others, is also going to be met with increasing competitive interest from the USA, Europe and the rest of the world.
There are some, such as Gerard Henderson of the Sydney Institute, who see little difference between these statements and the words and actions of predecessors. We would suggest there are major differences worth considering:
- These statements are driven by a different President with a very close connection to and understanding of the region, much more so than Bush, Clinton, Bush or other US Presidents in recent decades who have tended towards knowledge of and concern about Europe and the Middle East, for cultural, political and traditional reasons
- There is an emphasis on the strategic direction, openly emphasising the importance of the APAC region to the exclusion of other regions, not just viewing it as one of the growing global economies or as a region of great potential
- There is greater emphasis on the non-economic factors of the APAC relationships, including security and diplomatic relationships with non-traditional allies, placing the military or “police” role the US has traditionally claimed in a broader developmental context
- There’s a lot less mention of the need for APAC countries to adopt US values and more focus on fundamental values defined globally that contribute to regional prosperity and security, with potentially greater acceptance of some different political philosophies
Politically though, it is going to be difficult for President Obama to focus on this strategic agenda in the context of winning an election in a little under twelve months, given the current US economic situation. It is hard to see this broader, international agenda becoming a key focus of any other successful candidate in the short-term as they move to implement their key election policies, which are likely to be domestic or focused on current US international conflicts.
Regardless of any analysis, these expressions of support by key US figures should be seen as yet another vote of confidence for business and development in the Asia Pacific region.