The Obama Administration's Pivot to Asia

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A Conversation with Assistant Secretary Kurt Campbell - Department of State

Moderated by Robert Kagan - The Brookings Institution & Foreign Policy Initiative

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Summary

Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs Kurt Campbell spoke with FPI Director Robert Kagan on the Obama administration’s strategic “pivot” from the Middle East to East Asia.

Campbell began by saying that the countries of the Asian-Pacific recognize that while the dominant issues of the 21st century will be decided in that region, the United States was still in the initial stages its engagement there.  They recognize that the United States still had pressing situations in Afghanistan and Iraq, and a premature withdrawal from America’s commitments in those countries would not be positively indicative of Washington’s commitment to the Asia-Pacific.

While the United States has spent a great deal on defense spending in the decade following September 11, 2001, Campbell remarked that much of that spending was on post-conflict reconstruction related spending.  While many states in the region were investing heavily in power-projection capabilities, the United States had not kept up.  Moreover, while the United States had traditionally focused its attention in Northeast Asia, America had typically lagged in its engagement with countries in Southeast Asia.  The pivot to Asia, Campbell said, will not be completed in a few years, but will require a sustained and different allocation of diplomatic and military resources.

Campell said the United States must recognize that every country in the region wants a better relationship with China as well as the United States.  This is not necessarily due to geo-strategic concerns, he noted, but simple geography.  The country’s prominence and position in the region requires that smaller nations maintain strong ties with both Beijing and Washington, much unlike the bipolar divide of the Cold War.  America’s relationship with China will be the most complex relationship that we have ever had, and continued engagement with Beijing will be critical to managing the security and economic issues of the 21st century.

Campbell emphasized that America’s approach to China on human rights is indivisible from our economic and security policy.  He believes that previous remarks from Secretary of State Hillary Clinton that human rights would not impact the other elements of America’s China policy were taken out of context.  He emphasized that the United States has repeatedly broached human rights with Beijing as well as other authoritarian countries in the region.  He admitted that while those conversations were not easy ones to have, they were critical to democracy promotion.

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The Foreign Policy Initiative seeks to promote an active U.S. foreign policy committed to robust support for democratic allies, human rights, a strong American military equipped to meet the challenges of the 21st century, and strengthening America’s global economic competitiveness.
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