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  • 2012—A Watershed Year for East Asia?
  • James B. Steinberg (bio)

The year 2012 has emerged as a consequential moment in the evolution of the East Asian strategic landscape. A combination of important, unfolding leadership decisions in many of the regions' key countries and heightened tensions around several major flashpoints has served to focus attention ever more intensely on possible future trajectories in the years to come. All of this has taken place in the context of an effort by the Obama administration to define the United States' interests and long-term role in a region that has taken on increasing importance on both the economic and political fronts.

The list of this year's leadership contests is well known, beginning with the presidential elections that have already taken place in Taiwan and Russia, followed later this year by presidential elections in the United States and South Korea, as well as a planned leadership shift in Beijing at the 18th Party Congress this fall. Added to this mix, of course, was the unscheduled and only partially planned transition in North Korea, as well as the ever-present possibility of a change in Tokyo. These elections and other leadership selection processes in East Asia will not turn primarily on matters of foreign and security policy. On the contrary, key domestic issues—employment, taxes and spending, environmental issues, and social welfare programs—dominate almost everywhere. Yet these elections will have enormous consequences because the choices made by the leaders who will assume or retain power in 2012 will shape the political ties among the key regional states at a time when power relations among them are in great flux. Decisions made in the coming years could determine the stability of the East Asia region for a generation or more.

The leaders who retain or assume office in 2012 will not be developing their national strategies in isolation. On the contrary, each country will seek to base its own policies on an assessment of the likely goals and intentions of others. And in this mix, the most consequential driver will be the choices being made by the United States.

Since the beginning of the Obama administration, the United States has sought to build a strategy to strengthen its long-term role in East Asia on [End Page 22] multiple fronts. For security, this includes a reaffirmation of the importance of historic security alliances with Japan, South Korea, and Australia, while also diversifying military basing arrangements and focusing on developing a long-term, fiscally sustainable approach for the United States' western Pacific presence and strategy in the face of impending budget cuts. The direction of this element of U.S. strategy is on clear display in the recently released Defense Strategic Review. In announcing the outcome of the review, President Obama made explicit the central role of East Asia: "We will be strengthening our presence in the Asia-Pacific, and budget reductions will not come at the expense of that critical region." On the political level, this approach involves maintaining traditional and other important bilateral ties (including with Singapore, Vietnam, Indonesia, Malaysia, and India), as well as building on the nascent political reform in Myanmar to offer the prospect of greater engagement. The Obama administration has complemented these bilateral moves with strengthened multilateral engagement through joining the East Asia Summit (EAS) and playing a more active role in ASEAN-centric forums such as the ASEAN Regional Forum and the ASEAN Defence Ministers' Meeting-Plus (ADMM-Plus). In the economic sphere, actions include ratifying the Korea-U.S. Free Trade Agreement (KORUS), accelerating negotiations to expand the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), and reinvigorating APEC (Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation).

The administration has stressed that this is a positive agenda of engagement and reassurance to allay anxieties of the United States' friends and others in the region about the possibility of a U.S. retreat in the face of domestic economic and budget pressure, and that this agenda is not directed against or designed to contain China. This strategy also offers the United States the advantage of downplaying the bilateral Sino-U.S. dimensions of East Asia policy, particularly on contentious issues, and thus helps undercut both...


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pp. 22-25
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