With the U.S. set to join China and the rest of the ASEAN countries in Cambodia for an annual regional gathering next week, the atmosphere between Beijing and Washington is frosty, but there are efforts to get a thaw underway. According to Reuters, Kurt Campbell, assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific Affairs, will head to Phnom Penh in a spirit of cooperation:
The two powers will announce plans to work together on humanitarian disaster relief and wildlife protection — uncontroversial projects that reflect “our strong determination that we want to work with China,” Campbell told the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington think tank.“We will have areas of differences, we will have areas where we will naturally compete, but it will be important to send a very clear message…that we want to build a strong, durable partnership with China,” he added.
This is commendable as far as it goes, but a longer and more substantive list of new joint initiatives would be even better. Many countries underestimate the deep cooperation that exists between the US and China on a wide range of issues; there is more to be done and one key to America’s new Asia strategy is to help lay the foundation for an Asia-Pacific order that works reasonably well for all the region’s great powers, China included.While American’s enhanced engagement in the region has been welcomed by most of the smaller countries in the region, these countries can also see the downside of getting ensnared in a superpower rivalry. Commitments such as the one outlined by Campbell are a way to reassure ASEAN members that the US does not seek to contain China in a replay of the Cold War.Campbell also highlighted that ASEAN and China were working on a “Code of Conduct” to ease tensions in the South China Sea. Even though the US is not a party to the development of the code, committing American diplomacy to these multilateral forums enhances their chances of success and, hopefully, diminishes the need for direct American involvement in regional disputes.A code of conduct and set of practical agreements about how to exploit the economic resources believed to be under the seabed would benefit all the countries concerned and tend to tamp down the strong nationalist emotions that get involved when fleets stand nose to nose next to some tiny speck of rock in disputed waters.Getting Asia right is the most important challenge the United States will face in the next couple of decades. The administration seems to have the right general idea, but the devil is as always in the details. Filling in the outlines of a grand strategy with policies and programs, finding the resources to maintain the strategy, and managing your policy as others respond to it in various ways is the work of years and even decades rather than weeks and months.The American effort to develop and begin to implement a new Asia strategy is a story worth watching. As the approach of the world’s greatest military power to the world’s most important geopolitical theater, it has obvious consequences for world events. But it’s also an opportunity for students of politics and international relations to watch something big happen in real time.This is a story we will continue to follow.