Analysis of Secretary of State Clinton’s Asia Architecture Speech

  • Jan 13, 2010

    Secretary of State Hillary Clinton delivered an important speech at the East-West Center in Hawaii on Tuesday explaining the United States’ enduring interests in the Asia-Pacific region and the intention of the Obama administration to play a leading role in constructing an open and inclusive regional architecture for the future. It deserves credit for being one of the more comprehensive statements on architecture given so early in a new U.S. administration. Clinton emphasized the centrality of U.S. alliances, U.S. support for multilateral dialogue and cooperation, the key role for a strong and unified Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), and expanded engagement with a rising China. This pragmatic approach and continuity is exactly what Asian governments want to hear.

    In outlining the principles the United States would use to think about and perhaps even drive the regional architecture discussion, Clinton indicated that the United States recognizes a need for a new and inclusive structure that includes the key Asian powers but one that would not be dominated by any one country—meaning the United States or China. She also indicated that a regional structure would be complemented by effective and practical groupings of countries around specific issues or interests, citing the results-oriented work done responding to the tsunami of 2004.

    The speech also reflected the reality of Asia’s new multilateralism. As the 2009 CSIS survey Strategic Views on Asian Regionalism ( demonstrated, Asian elites are quietly skeptical about how effective the region’s institutions are likely to become in terms of underpinning peace and prosperity. When asked where they would turn in the event of security, financial, pandemic, or proliferation crises in 10 years, respondents pointed to their own national governments and militaries, alliances, or global institutions like the United Nations or IMF, rather than to the region’s older institutions such as ASEAN or the ASEAN Regional Forum or to newer groupings such as the East Asia Forum and the Chiang Mai Initiative. Part of the reason for this skepticism was apparent in the survey’s evidence of continued concern about power rivalries and unresolved disputes. Yet the survey also revealed a broad enthusiasm for actively building an East Asia Community in the years ahead. Clinton’s speech noted that the United States will want to engage in all of these institutions, but it sounded a more sober note about ensuring the effective governance of Asia’s institutions.

    Clinton highlighted the importance of new initiatives, such as the Human Rights Commission in the 2008 ASEAN Charter, which are aimed at strengthening democratic norms. While still hobbled by divided views within ASEAN and a lingering commitment to the principle of “noninterference in internal affairs,” initiatives like the Human Rights Commission reflect the growing consensus across the region that issues of democracy, human rights, and rule of law will be essential to building an East Asian Community. In the CSIS survey, these issues ranked only behind “confidence building” and “economic integration” as the goals of a regional community. The outlier was China, but even in China a majority of respondents recognized the ultimate importance of these goals.

    The Clinton speech also highlighted some of the Obama administration’s useful new initiatives on regional multilateralism, including the first U.S.-ASEAN Summit and the U.S. decision to sign the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation with ASEAN. These initiatives were started in the past, but were put on hold after the brutal crackdown against the Saffron Revolution in 2008 made summits and treaties with the junta in Burma politically untenable. And the secretary signaled again her intention to stay actively engaged in the annual ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF), even going so far as to hint that this may be the vehicle upon which to build a regional security architecture. This is a significant new focus on the ARF, a forum that her predecessor, Condoleezza Rice, skipped twice—to much criticism in the region.

    The test of Clinton’s principles will come very soon. President Obama will need to bring a robust and substantive package to the next U.S.-ASEAN Summit. He has the opportunity to build confidence and underline U.S. commitment by initiating the idea of holding the summit in Hanoi this year. That choice would show ASEAN, China, and all of Asia that the United States is following through on its commitment to return to Asia, and it would also support Vietnam as it chairs ASEAN amidst its most important political cycle—the lead-up to its Party Congress, its equivalent of national elections, in 2011. U.S. and Chinese interests may diverge on the question of whether a strong ASEAN is important for regional peace, security, and prosperity. The Chinese may prefer to deal with ASEAN’s member countries individually, while the United States seems to have recognized, through its new Burma policy and commitment to the region, that a strong ASEAN is the vital core of a balanced and peaceful Asian architecture.

    One key issue Secretary Clinton did not address in detail in the speech was India. Is India going to be part of an enduring Asian architecture? With a strong ASEAN at its core, some would argue that including India breaks down anachronistic colonial-era thinking of South Asia being fully separate from East Asia. India surely has the traditional trade, investment, and cultural linkages, if not the history of strong security ties, with Asia, especially if ASEAN is at the core of regional architecture and the United States is building strong strategic ties with India.

    The other issue that was not addressed in depth was trade. In Asia, trade policy is a vital foundation for foreign policy. U.S. leadership and engagement on regional architecture will lack serious credibility until the Obama administration puts together a meaningful trade strategy. The decision to move ahead with discussions on the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) with New Zealand, Singapore, Chile, and Brunei in November shows some recognition in the administration that the United States must be prepared to negotiate trade agreements. However, the stalled U.S.-Korea Free Trade Agreement (KORUS) casts a shadow over any U.S. effort. If the administration cannot or will not make serious efforts to get the agreement with Korea through the Congress, then future counterparts will be wary of taking the political risk necessary to negotiate new trade agreements with the United States.

    Many of Asia’s free trade agreements, such as the China-ASEAN agreement, are symbolic and so full of exemptions that they may violate World Trade Organization rules requiring substantial liberalization. However, South Korea has negotiated more serious trade agreements with the European Union and now is negotiating with India. As Asia-Pacific trade patterns reset in the wake of the financial crisis and leading economies like Korea negotiate more substantive preferential agreements, the United States will increasingly pay a price for being outside of the critical game of trade liberalization. The price will be paid in terms of jobs, competitiveness, and influence.

    Commentaries are produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

    © 2010 by the Center for Strategic and International Studies. All rights reserved.

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