Explaining President Obama’s Rebalance Strategy
By Ambassador Susan Rice, National Security Advisor
In January of 2009, American foreign policy was largely defined by the horrific aftermath of the September 11th attacks, two ground wars in the Middle East, and the worst financial crisis in decades, with the global economy, by many measures, on a worse trajectory than in 1929.
So when President Obama took office, it’s not surprising that most Americans viewed our foreign policy through a lens of protracted war and global uncertainty.
On day one, we went to work — taking steps not only to put our own economy on the path to recovery, but to renew and redefine U.S. leadership on the world stage. To do that, we had to focus our efforts and resources not only on the challenges that Americans read in the headlines, but on the regions that we knew would shape the globe in the 21st century. We had to confront challenges and pursue opportunities.
Today, one region above all else presents us with the possibility to do just that: the Asia Pacific. And out of that recognition emerged a concerted strategy — “the Asia Rebalance” — to avail ourselves of the region’s opportunities by deepening and broadening America’s engagement with the emerging global center of gravity.
So why is the Asia Pacific so important? And what does the Asia Rebalance mean exactly? Here’s a rundown of what you need to know about the President’s regional strategy.
Why the Asia Pacific?
For many Americans, the Asia Pacific is a region that serves as a backdrop for our own personal experiences — a marketplace where we can expand a business, a region to visit and explore, a place we came from before building a new life in America.
I first got to know the region in 1987, when my now-husband and I — fresh out of college — decided to backpack for a month across China from Beijing to Hong Kong. At the time, I never expected that China would be what it is today — a global power and our most consequential bilateral relationship centered in the world’s most dynamic region.
That’s why, when President Obama took office, we decided to invest more American resources in Asia as it continued to transform into a region that houses the world’s largest middle class and fastest-growing markets.
Not only does the Asia Pacific hold more than 25 percent of global GDP, we expect nearly half of all economic growth outside of the United States to occur in the region.
That kind of economic transformation has resulted in a region that is now, by and large, more prosperous than I could’ve imagined when I first set foot in Asia nearly 30 years ago.
However, the economic and political rules of the road are still taking shape. And as they do, countries of the region are looking more and more to the United States — recognizing the economic opportunity that we offer, relying on the security we provide, and valuing the deep cultural ties between their populations and the Asian-American communities in the United States.
So, in endeavoring to renew and strengthen U.S. leadership in the 21st century, President Obama recognized that failing to reorient our foreign policy toward the region would not only be imprudent, it would also be potentially perilous.
What is the Asia Rebalance?
When President Obama took office, he instructed his national security team to ensure that America’s international presence was calibrated to the challenges and opportunities ahead of the new Administration. The American economy recovered, and we began to draw down our troop presence in Afghanistan and Iraq, enabling America to become more engaged in Asia with one overarching objective: to sustain a rules-based order that reflects economic openness, peaceful dispute resolution, and respect for universal human rights.
As the President said in Australia in 2011:
“This is the future we seek in the Asia Pacific — security, prosperity and dignity for all. That’s what we stand for. That’s who we are. That’s the future we will pursue, in partnership with allies and friends, and with every element of American power. So let there be no doubt: In the Asia Pacific in the 21st century, the United States of America is all in.”
What Does the Rebalance Look Like in Action?
We’ve accomplished a lot in every corner of the Asia Pacific in last seven years, and we still have more to do.
We have worked tirelessly to strengthen and modernize our traditional alliances with Australia, Japan, the Republic of Korea, and the Philippines, all of which have shaped and secured the region since World War II.
We have simultaneously sought out new strategic partners and expanded region-wide cooperation, beginning with signing our Treaty of Amity and Cooperation with ASEAN countries in 2009.
Since then, we have joined the premier forum for addressing political and security challenges with the East Asia Summit, established a permanent resident Ambassador to ASEAN, and now have regular ministerial dialogues with ASEAN countries across a broad range of economic, political, and security issues.
Earlier this year in the first summit of its kind, President Obama hosted ASEAN Leaders at Sunnylands in California, where leaders made a historic decision to elevate our relations to a Strategic Partnership — a clear signal of the United States deep commitment to the region.
When it comes to China, there is no more consequential bilateral relationship. We demonstrated that when, in 2014, the United State and China jointly announced commitments to address climate change and carbon emissions, building momentum for 190 countries to reach the Paris agreement on climate change one month later. I have traveled to China five times as National Security Advisor, each time with an aim to expand areas of practical cooperation while managing our significant differences constructively. We have done so largely successfully.
But the Asia Rebalance is not only about our engagement with other governments. Another core of our approach is about engaging with people across the region.
Since launching the Young Southeast Asian Leaders Initiative (YSEALI) in 2013, more than 100,000 young people have joined with aspirations to build a better future for themselves, their communities, and their countries.
Just after his own reelection in 2012, President Obama became the first sitting U.S. president to visit Burma and continues to support the ongoing transition toward an inclusive and representative democracy for all citizens of that country.
On Monday, President Obama will similarly become the first U.S. president to visit Laos. Similar to our experiences with Vietnam and Japan, we are cognizant of a difficult past marked by conflict but committed to forging partnership based on mutual respect and mutual interest.
To understand the United States profound commitment to the Asia Rebalance, one need look no further than the President’s most limited resource — his time. While in office, President Obama has visited the region more than any other U.S. president, sometimes making multiple visits in a year.
Throughout the Asia Pacific, the United States remains committed to expanding and deepening our engagement.
As we continue to strengthen our alliances and security cooperation in the region, a critical piece of work to be done is Congressional ratification of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, or the TPP.
The TPP is a 21st century trade agreement with countries that account for nearly 40 percent of the world’s GDP and puts in place the highest possible standards that will benefit our workers, our businesses, and our overall economy.
Not only does it cut more than 18,000 taxes various countries put on Made-in-America goods, it also sets historic labor and environmental standards that will ensure our trading partners play by our rules and our values.
Now is a critical time to put this deal in place. Because if we don’t take advantage of the opportunities in the region, our global competitors, including China, will — and that has real costs to the U.S. economy and our national security.
According to one study, delaying ratification of this agreement by a single year could cost nearly $100 billion. Just as importantly, the other regional signatories also view our ability to ratify this deal as a reflection of our leadership and commitment to the Asia Pacific. Delay not only jeopardizes the TPP, but undermines our stature in the region and on the broader world stage.
President Obama distilled the Asia Rebalance to a fundamental truth when he said:
“Here, we see the future.”
And in that future, the United States will continue to lead and to offer partnership to promote the security and prosperity and dignity of people throughout the region and on both sides of the Pacific.