Hillary Clinton's Asia Sojourn

Like the character in novelist Elizabeth Gilbert’s best seller “Eat, Pray, Love,” U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton will travel this week from Europe (though Greece will have to stand in for Italy in this narrative) through India to Bali. But Clinton is not traveling to find herself. She is in search of viable strategic partners and will aim to remind friends that the United States is indeed Asia-focused and committed to sustaining its leadership in the region.

As partners assess U.S. power, Secretary Clinton not only plays a strong hand, but at the same time is assessing the capabilities of our partners in Asia. 

Soul-searching is not exclusive to Americans, who are watching with horror as their politicians play Russian roulette with U.S. fiscal well-being. Indeed, Indians, Japanese, and even the Chinese are going through various levels of introspection and anxiety. India has been rocked by high-level corruption scandals and appears to be taking decisions about its security at a tactical—certainly not strategic—level. 

Japan’s government is teetering on the sharp knife of no-confidence as the nation strives to recover from natural disasters that further exposed economic stagnation and weakened governance. China is heading toward a leadership transition that is nearly as opaque as papal selection, apparently forcing leaders to focus on survival and domestic political maneuvering that has left the military to develop its own regional foreign policy and violate China’s own national security objectives, including not having bad relations with its immediate neighbors.

In spite of the dangerous partisan bloodletting dominating Washington, Clinton continues to act strategically, working to institutionalize important American relationships in the Asia Pacific. She is trying to lay the foundation for advancing the country’s interests in the coming decades. 

Notably, Clinton has decided that Southeast Asia, specifically ASEAN, will serve as the fulcrum for a long-term Asia strategy. That is not to say that ASEAN—anchored by its largest member country, Indonesia—is more strategically important than India, China, or Japan, but it is the focal point where the most important geostrategic chess games of the twenty-first century will be played. At times like this, it appears that the secretary of state is the only U.S. cabinet member, except perhaps Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner, who understands this fact.

Clinton will be laying the foundation this week for a challenging series of meetings in November for President Obama. Her role is to set the table with substantive initiatives that Obama can point to when he starts his November in Cannes, France, for the G20, then moves to Honolulu to host the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) leaders, visits a yet–to-be-named Asian country (or two), and finally arrives in Indonesia for the East Asia Summit (EAS) and the U.S.-ASEAN Leaders Meeting. 

Watch Clinton’s time in Bali closely for hints about what is to come. She will lay out a U.S.-ASEAN work plan that focuses on joint efforts in trade capacity building (to help bring new countries into the Trans-Pacific Partnership), education, sustainable development (particularly around the Lower Mekong Initiative), green energy, and last, but certainly not least, maritime security. She will weave the same threads into the EAS foreign ministers’ meeting, with more emphasis there on transparency, governance, and cooperative efforts related to humanitarian assistance and disaster relief. 

President Obama will need to use the political capital required to get his administration and the Congress to help him advance U.S. interests in Asia this fall. Congress and the administration need to address the fiscal situation, position trade as a key element of economic recovery (by passing the U.S.-Korea free trade agreement at a minimum), and refocus U.S. strategic resources toward Asia. 

The outlines of a plan for November will be to focus APEC on economics—promoting economic recovery, trade, innovation, and regulatory alignment in Asia—and to use the EAS to address the political and security environment—emphasizing the need for more transparency, cooperation, and a law-based approach to ensuring peace and prosperity on the seas in Asia.

The secretary should also reaffirm in the strongest way possible, America’s commitment to human rights and democracy. People throughout Asia are seeking empowerment and the delivery of public goods from their governments, as can be seen in recent elections, demonstrations, and statements by civil society leaders around the Asia Pacific. This is a theme that the United States embodies and should emphasize. It is an intrinsic source of inspiration that other great powers can’t buy with foreign reserves or muscle with overwhelming numbers.

Clinton is on an important journey. She will find many challenges and inspirations along the way. She has many of the tools to exercise strategic American power for the good of the Asia Pacific, but she will need help from allies and partners as well as from the White House, her fellow cabinet members, and the U.S. Congress. 

Ernest Z. Bower