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Jakarta Post

Why should the US be involved in Asia?

  • Sabam Siagian and Endy M. Bayuni

    The Jakarta Post

  /   Wed, October 9, 2013   /  11:29 am

The year was 1957. Two CIA operatives James D. Haase and Tony Poe had just landed by an amphibious plane on Lake Singkarak in West Sumatra on an assignment to assist an armed group that was rebelling against Jakarta.

To their dismay, the rebellion army and weapons their Indonesian contact had promised were nowhere to be seen. Many years later, when relating this story in the book by Kenneth Conboy and James Morrison Feet to the Fire '€“ CIA Covert Operations in Indonesia (1999, Naval Institute Press), Poe poignantly commented: '€œWhy the f*** did we come?'€

When looking at US involvement in Asia, it is always advisable to pose Poe'€™s introspective question, albeit in more elegant language.

In the past, the answer was often obvious.

In Korea in 1950 it was to thwart the advance of the communist regime in the North. In Vietnam a decade later, it started with a handful of military advisors, but soon expanded into a full scale war against the communist North, only for the US to be strategically defeated in 1973. However, one positive upshot of this ugly Asian war was the US détente with China'€™s Mao Zedong.

The military adventure in Indonesia was not a project of some overambitious CIA operatives, as Audrey R. Kahin and George McT Kahin wrote in their 1995 acclaimed book Subversion as Foreign Policy - The Secret of Eisenhower and Dulles Debacle in Indonesia.

An earlier meeting of the National Security Council at the White House presided over by president Dwight Eisenhower himself endorsed the goals of breaking up Java and Sumatra to prevent the Indonesian Communist Party from spreading its influence and of a possible regime change to replace the left-leaning president Sukarno.

As history proved, the mission failed.

With this historical background, it is understandable why many in Asia were skeptical about America'€™s intentions when President Barack Obama announced in 2011 the US return to the region and essentially heralding a new policy in Asia.

Declaring America as an Asia- Pacific power, his pivot to Asia has come down to no more than reallocating more (of the shrinking) US military resources from the Atlantic to the Indo-Pacific region. From the language used, including the call to strengthen security cooperation with its traditional allies and partners, everyone understood that the US pivot was intended first and foremost to contain the rise of China.

Less than two years later, Obama'€™s entire foreign policy doctrine, and not just his Asian policy, are running into trouble. The recent dramatic developments ignited by Russian President Vladimir Putin'€™s emerging role in the Syrian crisis, and a friendly 15-minute phone conversation between President Obama and Iranian President Hassan Rohani have put the conduct of US global policy in a new framework.

The Washington policy establishment too is beginning to have doubts. The International Herald Tribune last week ran two articles scrutinizing the Obama doctrine, and both questioned whether the United States had lost the '€œmojo'€ that comes with being the lone superpower.

In '€œFor Obama, an evolving doctrine on use of force'€ David E. Sanger, the eminent foreign policy specialist of the New York Times, said Obama was struggling with the question of whether America is still willing to act as the world'€™s policeman. Former CIA vice chairman Graham Fuller in '€œBreaking the mold on US foreign policy'€ welcomed what he described as a straying into the radical reforging of American foreign policy.

Obama has quietly put the pivot to Asia on the backburner. In his speech before the UN General Assembly last week, he said that for the remainder of his term until 2016, he would focus on finding diplomatic solutions to Iran'€™s nuclear weapons program and the peace between Israel and Palestine.

The implicit message from his UN speech is that Obama is moderating US foreign policy ambitions. Whatever critics say, this is an implicit recognition of the limits of US global influence.

Fuller rightly said that many of the enshrined axioms that had guided Washington in the past decades may now be unraveling, including American exceptionalism, unilateralism, its role as a global cop, a moral commentator, global hegemony and as an architect of a world order.

While power balances have dramatically shifted, attitudes in Washington'€™s foreign policy circles remain in much the same triumphant mood that erupted immediately after the Cold War. Russia and China are rising, still not as powerful as the United States, but they seek a larger role in shaping the world.

Domestic opinion is ahead of Washington in accepting this reality, refusing to give the President a carte blanche to launch yet another expensive and senseless war abroad. Obama recognized this much when he said, on more than one occasion, that the nation-building that mattered most to Americans is not the one in Iraq or Afghanistan, but the one at home.

The 2008 economic recession took its toll on US military capabilities. And the shutdown of the federal government this month has compounded the problem.

In light of these changes and in light of Obama'€™s new foreign policy priorities, the US will need to come up with a new Asian foreign policy. It will still take into account the strategic security interests of the US, its allies and friends in the region, but it should be a policy that put first and foremost its diplomatic and not its military resources.

China may be the elephant in the room, but for every country in Asia, China is also its largest trading partner. As these countries adjust their respective China policy to this new reality, so too should the United States.

In crafting its new Asian policy, the US should get more creative, deploying more soft power than hard power to stand a better chance of winning the hearts and minds and the trust of its friends in Asia.

If Washington is looking for a display of soft power policy that works, it needs to look no further than to what the US Permanent Representative to the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), Ambassador David L. Carden, is doing.

Carden travels extensively through the 10 ASEAN member countries, building extensive networks with local institutions to jointly address wide-ranging issues such women empowerment, education, old city preservations, labor rights and the environment.

He has even retained a science advisor attached to his office in Jakarta. Granted, he is not burdened by time consuming bilateral protocols that other US ambassadors in the region must go through
every day.

There are more than 1001 reasons why the United States can be and must be part of the Asian Century, and while the presence of the Seventh Fleet and the Marines is still necessary, it should not be the one Washington is touting.

On regional security, Washington will be better off negotiating a new power sharing arrangements with Beijing, instead of seeking to contain the rise of China by rounding up its allies and friends in the region. One forum these two giants can use to prevent the polarization of Asia into two camps is the annual East Asia Summit, where they can address security concerns jointly with other medium powers in Asia, including ASEAN.

For their part, ASEAN countries could help ease the escalating tension in the South China Sea by resolving their overlapping territorial claims with one another.

Asia would welcome a US policy that will, of necessity, be vastly different from the 2011 pivot, and one that is more realistic and less gung-ho.

The writers are senior editors of The Jakarta Post and former editors-in-chief of the newspaper. They are Class 1979 and Class 2004 of the Nieman Fellowship program for journalists at Harvard University. Siagian was formerly Indonesia'€™s ambassador to Australia.