Look East, America

The upcoming 2012 presidential election is fast becoming the election that forgot foreign policy, and understandably so, as the American economy continues to struggle.

Republicans will hope to use next year’s election as a referendum on President Obama’s handling of the economy, while Democrats will battle to convince voters to give their president another four years.

Yet, while all of this is happening, the world is business as usual. There is the potential conflict between Israel and Iran, the ever-present threat of a nuclear North Korea, and an increasingly assertive China in the Asia-Pacific. If these past Republican primary debates are any indication of what this election will be about, the electorate might be lucky to have a brief discussion on Israel and Iran.

However, let us focus on China since the subject of American job creation and protection almost always involves China. Whispered or spoken aloud are fears that America is in decline. Yet, there is little reason to believe that the US’s current predicament is irreversible, or that China’s rise will necessarily and permanently overtake America. Not that these fears are unfounded – America is indeed in a crisis – they are simply misdirected. It is not the Chinese economy that the US should be concerned with; rather, it is their expansionist policy in Asia. As long as they bury their heads in the sand at home, they are blind to developments occurring around the world; and where have we heard this story before?

If Republicans and Democrats are divided on domestic policy, they should at the very least present a coherent and united approach on how best to approach China. Right now, foreign policy is a short-term game as politicians decide what moves they can and cannot make, based not on the long-term interest of the nation but on their chances next year. ‘What must I do to get elected or re-elected’?

But that’s the wrong question to ask. This is not the United States of Republicans or the United States of Democrats – it is the United States of America. Regardless of one’s political stance, there must only be one American foreign policy, a strictly American approach to the world that transcends political boundaries. An idealistic point of view, sure, but America was founded on such idealism. There was nothing pessimistic about the Revolutionary War, which brought about American independence.

Future US foreign policy is anchored in Asia, and China is the undisputed regional power. As such, any US foreign policy in Asia will undoubtedly take into account China’s presence. Before we begin, however, we must ask ourselves, “Why is the US afraid of China?” To be blunt, we shouldn’t be afraid, and we shouldn’t somehow find it strange or frightening that China wants to play a larger role in the world.

Is the concern centered on the question over whether the rise of China will see the continued loss of American jobs? Without sounding callous, nature abhors a vacuum. Whatever jobs lost now will be replaced by different jobs. If not that, then is the US afraid that China, as an economic powerhouse, will eventually dominate the US? Such fears were raised against Japan in the 1980s, and look how that turned out. America is still an economic superpower.

The truth is that it is not China’s economic growth the US should fear, but the manner in which China has conducted itself in the Asia Pacific. Had China simply played fair and by the rules, such fears would be groundless. However, fair play and rules are situational, as evidenced in the maritime and territorial disputes in the South China Sea.

Freedom of navigation in the South China Sea is a matter of international concern and requires international scrutiny. However, China is content on pursuing bilateral negotiations with its neighbors only, rather than open these disputes to the world at large. If this should be the Pacific Century, China must conduct itself in a manner that is consistent with the responsibilities accorded. What China wants is peace, prosperity, and respect; but if this is what they want then they cannot run roughshod over their neighbors.

So what about that American foreign policy?

The US can’t ignore its current economic difficulties at home, but it also can’t ignore the world either. It can’t pretend the world is at a standstill while it tries to figure out who will become its next president. It should be the goal of any American foreign policy in Asia-Pacific to strengthen and build relationships with its regional allies and secure the peace. This means the US must respect and work alongside China towards achieving stability and security in the Pacific; but it must also continue to confront China, respectfully, on human rights violations and anti-democratic actions, never mind maritime activities in the South China Sea.

How the US proceeds and what it decides to do will lie in the hands of its leaders, but it must address China.

The upcoming 2011 Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) conference in Honolulu, Hawaii, provides a perfect opportunity for the US to engage in meaningful dialogue with China. More than just dialogue, however, it provides an opportunity for concrete steps by both countries to be taken. It’s time to tackle the situation head-on.

Deeds, not words, but all we’ve seen from the US’s political leaders has been a lot of talk. Joint-military exercises with American allies in the Pacific can only do so much. Ambiguous gestures of support and empty words have done little to slow China’s assertiveness in the South China Sea. If the US wishes to remain relevant in the Pacific then it’s time for America to lead.

Just how much can get done at APEC? Given the specific nature of the conference (dealing primarily with economic issues), Chinese expansionist policy will likely take a back seat to more urgent economic matters at hand. This is understandable, of course; but with the world leaders of APEC nations coming together, there is potential for significant actions. This APEC conference is supposed to be a defining moment for America and the Pacific, but if little is achieved at this conference then what was the point?

These conferences are wonderful opportunities for world leaders to talk about grand ideas, but it would be even better if these grand ideas were translated into real action.

The America of today isn’t the same as the America 10 years ago. It is significantly constrained by an economic crisis, political divisiveness, and a general sense of uncertainty. Republicans and Democrats can argue who best should run the country; but in the end the president, Republican or Democrat, will have to deal with an increasingly assertive China. The American people must be reminded that there is a world beyond its shores and simply closing eyes and retreating into isolation is not an option. It has done this before, with disastrous consequences.

(Khanh Vu Duc is a Vietnamese Canadian lawyer in Ottawa, focusing on various areas of law. He researches on International Relations and International Law. He serves as President of the VDK Law Office and the VDK Investment Consulting Group.)