The New American Might in the 21st Century

The United States’ pivot to Asia-Pacific has more than ruffled a few feathers in China, with Beijing regarding it to be intrusive and opportunistic. For some countries in the region, concerned by China’s increasing assertiveness, the arrival of the US can only be a good thing. Yet, in this period of austerity when the US is marked to reduce its defense budget, what exactly will be its role in the region?

Undoubtedly, that role will be much reduced, requiring greater cooperation among allies to achieve its objectives. To that end, building alliances will become critical to US success in the region; however, in selecting strategic partners, the US must be sure in picking the right one.

Returning to Asia-Pacific

If the 21st century should belong to the Pacific, it is clear the United States wishes to be a part of it. The US has recently and frequently described itself as a “Pacific nation,” as if to give the impression that its transition to the Pacific theatre is natural. To be clear, US interests in Asia-Pacific date as far back as the 19th century, with its abortive Philippine–American War being quite disastrous; and the century after saw further US involvement in various Asia countries before, during, and following World War II, including China, Japan, Korea and Vietnam.

It would be erroneous to believe that the US has ever truly left the Pacific. The US Seventh Fleet, based out of Japan since the Second World War, serves to project American power throughout the region. It would seem that the past decade was, in context of the past century, an outcome of the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. That devastating morning would have far-reaching effects on American foreign policy. The US would reorient its military, intelligence, and law enforcement services to tackle terrorism, primarily in the Middle East and Central Asia, at the expense of its commitments elsewhere.

For the first decade of the 21st century, the America’s War on Terror has defined and dictated the direction of the country.

To Work with Others

However, as American operations in Iraq have wound down and with Afghanistan soon to follow, Washington is free to shift its focus back to the Asia-Pacific. This has had the predictable effect of annoying China, whose increasing wealth and stature on the international stage has allowed the country to be bold in asserting its presence, which has alarmed its neighbors. The Philippines and Vietnam have been most vocal in their opposition to China’s assertiveness, particularly as it relates to the South China Sea disputes.

In the face of potentially deep cuts to its defense budget, the US has adopted a more multilateral approach to its Asia-Pacific pivot, more than willing to take the lead on affairs but to share the responsibility among partners.

During his visits to Singapore, Vietnam, and India in May through June of this year, it fell upon Defense Secretary Leon Panetta to outline the future of America in the region. In brief, the secretary stated that the US pivot had little to do with China and more to do with promoting regional stability. Among key concerns listed by Secretary Panetta were narcotics and human trafficking, terrorism, and piracy, as well as North Korea. Far from acting alone, the US would seek assistance from its partners, for these matters not only concern the US but regional countries as well.

In response these threats, the secretary announced the Unites States would provide advice and assistance to help improve the military capabilities of its partners. From his participation in the Shangri-La Dialogue and meeting face-to-face with his counterparts from Singapore, Vietnam, and India, among other nations, Secretary Panetta, accompanied by senior government and military officials, gave the appearance of someone hard at work to spread news of America’s return to the Pacific. As was the case with Libya, the United States will no longer be the primary or sole actor, but a facilitator, helping others in achieving shared objectives.

Selecting the Right Partner

The United States will have no trouble finding allies in the Pacific. Traditional allies such as the Philippines, Japan, South Korea, Thailand and Australia can be counted upon. Other nations such as Singapore and Indonesia may also be willing to assist or at least provide diplomatic support for American endeavors in the region. However, in choosing new partners, the US must be wary of picking the wrong one.

It has been the position of the US that closer ties with Vietnam, particularly in the area of selling arms, are subject to human rights improvement by the Vietnamese government. Improvements in these areas to date have been found lacking; and true to their word, the US has so far refrained from selling weapons to Vietnam.

All of this stands to change should the situation in the Pacific become too unfavorable to the US. If this is the case, the US cannot sacrifice its moral standing on the matter for the sake of short-term gains and convenience.

How can a government with a proven and consistent record of human rights abuse be trusted to appropriately handle armaments intended for national defense? These are not the foundations upon which one builds a partnership. The US should be wary of affording Vietnam any goodwill when its leaders are intent on protecting their self-interest at the expense of its citizens. Vietnam can be a valuable strategic partner in the Pacific, but it must first change.

A strong, stable, and prosperous relationship between the US and Vietnam requires a Vietnam that is democratic, and respective of the rights and privileges of its people. Shared values and beliefs unite nations, much in the same way the US regards the United Kingdom and the Japan friends, two historic foes now allies. It is not the Vietnamese people that have opposed political and human rights reform, but their government.

Needless to say, Hanoi must walk a fine line of trying to develop closer ties with the US without jeopardizing its relationship with China. It is an unenviable task that requires diplomatic finesse. Still, all of this can be achieved with a democratic government in place. More than once, the US has partnered with less than democratic governments leading to questionable results. If this coming century belongs to the Pacific, and if the US wishes to be part of this future, it cannot make its return by joining hands with a regime such as that of Vietnam.

All of this is not to say the US should engage in overthrowing governments. Rather, it must be willing to do dedicate the time and effort to help transition authoritarian and single-party states to democracy. Multilateral instead of unilateral action will offer the best road to long-term success. If the US wishes to play any part in Asia-Pacific—more than whatever military assets it can mobilize to the area—America must be seen to be a trusted ally.

(Khanh Vu Duc is a Vietnamese Canadian lawyer in Ottawa, focusing on various areas of law. He researches on International Relations and International Law)