The Need for Renewed American Leadership in the Asia-Pacific

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The Need for Renewed American Leadership in the Asia-Pacific

December 29, 2016 11 min read Download Report
John McCain
Sen. John McCain
Chairman, Senate Committee on Armed Services

It is a great pleasure to be back among friends at The Heritage Foundation. My thanks to your president, Senator Jim DeMint, for his gracious hospitality and for his continued leadership in support of conservative principles.

It is a special privilege to be here today for the annual B. C. Lee Lecture. I want to thank the Lee family for their support of this program, which has a proud tradition of speakers representing some of the leading voices on U.S. policy in the Asia-Pacific, including Henry Kissinger and Condoleezza Rice. Only once did The Heritage Foundation lower its standards to allow Senator Joe Lieberman to speak.

I want to thank our host, Ambassador Ahn from the Republic of Korea, for being here today. And I am grateful to see a number of ambassadors from the region and other distinguished guests here today.

Asia: Past, Present, and Future

As a Pacific nation, the United States recognizes that much of the history of the 21st century will be written in the Asia-Pacific region. Tremendous opportunities lie ahead. And I am confident we can seize these opportunities if we stay true to the principles that brought us to this fortunate moment in the history of Asia.

Seventy years ago, out of the ashes of world war, America and our allies and partners built a rules-based international order—one based on the principles of good governance and the rule of law, free peoples and free markets, open seas and open skies, and the conviction that wars of aggression should be relegated to the bloody past. Put simply: These ideas have changed the fortunes of Asia forever.

An unprecedented era of peace and security has enabled hundreds of millions of Asians to lift themselves out of poverty and transform the economies of the region. Asia is now at the teeming center of the global marketplace. More citizens of Asia than ever before are now free to speak their minds and make their own choices. And as they secured these basic rights, Asians by the millions have voted to elect their own leaders, live under laws of their own making, and stand up democratic governments. Taken together, I believe this Asia—the peaceful, prosperous, democratic Asia—is the most remarkable rising power in the world today.

American Leadership and the Future of Asia

None of this was preordained. It is certainly true that a rules-based international order has succeeded because of the inherent appeal of its values and the material gains they foster. But good ideas need a champion. And that is what America and the nations of this region have done together. We have marshalled our power and influence. We have borne the costs and the sacrifices. We have made the choice to defend the principles of the rules-based order here in Asia. Now we must choose again.

And that choice is not ours alone. All the nations of Asia need to decide what kind of future they want.

Will they choose for themselves to invest in and defend the framework of norms, standards, rules, and laws that have underpinned Asia’s security, prosperity, and freedom for the last seven decades? Or will they conclude that the costs are too high and the consequences too grave, and allow a new order to take root—one that resembles the region’s dark past, where might makes right, and bullies set the rules and break them?

China and the Future of Asia

Based on its aggressive behavior in recent years, I can only conclude that China is doing everything it can to ensure that Asia chooses the latter.

I take no joy in reaching such a conclusion. And it is strange in light of the fact that no nation has benefitted more from the rules-based order than China. In just a single generation, China has become an economic superpower and a major player in international affairs. And no nation has been a greater advocate for China’s success than the United States of America.

A China truly committed to a “peaceful rise” should be a vital partner in upholding the rules-based international order. Instead, it appears China is choosing to use its growing power and position to disrupt it. And it has maneuvered toward a policy of intimidation and coercion in support of this objective, a development which has dramatically accelerated under the leadership of Xi Jinping.

China has used trade as a weapon in disputes with its neighbors.

It has used cyber to steal intellectual property from foreign businesses to benefit its own industries.

It has harassed fisherman from the Philippines, Vietnam, Indonesia, and Malaysia.

It has stepped up armed incursions around the Senkaku Islands administered by Japan in the East China Sea.

It has conducted dangerous intercepts of military aircraft flying in accordance with international law.

In the South China Sea, China has shattered the commitments it made to its neighbors in the 2002 Declaration of Conduct, as well as more recent commitments to the U.S. Government, by conducting reclamation on disputed features and militarizing the South China Sea at a startling and destabilizing rate.

Then when the Permanent Court of Arbitration took up the case against China’s vast claims in the South China Sea, China operated as a bully. It demanded the silence of regional and global states. And it threatened consequences for those that supported the international ruling. That ruling was decisive: China’s nine-dash line was invalidated and found to be entirely inconsistent with international law. When China didn’t get its way, it said the ruling was a U.S.-led conspiracy and vowed defiance.

All of this is part of China’s zero-sum game for regional power and influence. China’s leaders view the last two centuries as aberrations of history. They seek to reclaim China’s status as the dominant power in the Asia-Pacific. As one leading Singaporean diplomat said this year, “China does not merely want consideration of its interests. China expects deference to its interests to be internalized” by other Asian nations.

In other words, China’s leaders want to dictate the economic and security rules of the road for Asia. But they view the United States as the primary obstacle to achieving this goal.

China: A Bad Neighbor

So, China has presented the nations of Asia with a false choice: Are you with us, or are you with the United States? And those that fail to make the right choice in China’s eyes must prepare for the consequences.

Take South Korea. Following North Korea’s nuclear test in January of this year, South Korea agreed to the deployment of the U.S. THAAD (Terminal High Altitude Area Defense) missile defense system—a system which poses no threat to China. Since then, China has devoted more of its energy and influence to bullying South Korea for making a sovereign decision to defend itself rather than using its outsized influence over North Korea to prevent further advances in its nuclear program. The result of China’s misguided priorities registered on the Richter scale last night when North Korea detonated its fifth nuclear device.

China’s blatant bullying of its neighbors is disturbing. And indeed it can be self-defeating. There is no doubt China’s hysterical threats and heavy-handed diplomacy have produced backlash. But that is not to say such pressure cannot be effective.

China will likely persist in pressuring the nations of Asia to fall in line with its challenge to the rules-based order. It appears to believe the balance of power has shifted, that America is in decline, and that now is the right time to right what it views as historic wrongs.

I believe this judgment is wrong. But the true danger is if other nations in Asia reach the same conclusion.

American Leadership in the Asia-Pacific

The United States cannot choose for Asia whether to uphold and defend the rules-based order. But we can make the choice an easier one by demonstrating renewed leadership in the Asia-Pacific, by choosing to remain actively engaged in the world as an indispensable economic and security partner.

I know that many question if America is prepared to demonstrate that leadership, to make that choice. And I understand why.

America has its share of challenges these days—a difficult long-term fiscal situation, structural adjustments in our economy that have caused real dislocation, the devastating impact that sequestration is having on our military, and a gridlocked politics that makes many of our hard problems even harder to solve.

But my friends, America has faced far greater challenges before. And doubts about our resolve are not new. But ultimately, our success came down to the choices we made. We chose to play a leadership role in the world, not to abandon our allies and partners, and to bear the costs of doing so. That choice has, at times, been unpopular. But it was, and still is, the right choice. And that is the choice we must be prepared to make today.

American Leadership: Achieving Military Balance

The United States must continue to maintain a favorable military balance in the Asia-Pacific region that secures our enduring national interests, upholds our treaty commitments, and safeguards open seas and open commerce.

This begins with a sustained effort to continue to fly, sail, and operate wherever international law allows, as we have done in the Western Pacific for more than a century. Freedom of the seas is a vital part of the rules-based order. But most importantly, the freedom of the seas is in America’s DNA. Freedom of the seas is not a choice for America. It is an essential part of who we are as a people.

China’s reclamation and militarization of features in the Spratly Islands has provided a new geographic foothold in the South China Sea to coerce its neighbors. In addition to the Paracel and Spratly Islands, I worry China is intent on seizing and reclaiming Scarborough Shoal as the third military position in its South China Sea triangle of influence. Such an outcome would present a serious threat to our treaty ally, the Philippines. This administration and the next must make preventing the seizure of Scarborough a central objective of its own strategy to defend freedom of the seas.

More broadly, the United States must invest in robust naval, air, and ground presence to provide a “forward defense” in the Western Pacific. We have made significant progress on this issue in recent years—the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement with the Philippines, new naval access in Singapore, a Force Posture Initiative with Australia, and the Defense Guidelines with Japan.

But given the military investments that China has made, our planned posture for the coming decade demands a rethink. That is why I believe the next Administration should conduct a new global force posture review, including a fresh look at further steps to enhance U.S. presence in the Asia-Pacific region.

As part of this, we need to take a hard look at recent studies that suggest more forward stationing of forces in the Western Pacific, including a second aircraft carrier and its Air Wing in Japan, an Amphibious Ready Group at a location like Guam, additional attack submarines in Guam, and the rotation of large surface combatants in Southeast Asia.

I’m also encouraged that Admiral Harris at Pacific Command is leading the way on developing new operational concepts for expeditionary airpower and land forces that can contribute to a fight in the maritime domain.

American Leadership: Building Strong Alliances

The United States must also continue to strengthen our alliances and develop new partnerships. As we do, we must do the important work of integrating these bilateral relationships into a broader network of regional partnerships based on common interests and shared values.

Let me offer one example close to my heart: our nation’s growing partnership with Vietnam. The United States and Vietnam share a host of strategic and economic interests. I believe the time has come for our two navies to launch a more sustained U.S.-Vietnam Maritime Initiative. This could include expanding joint at-sea exercises, welcoming Vietnam to the Rim of the Pacific exercise, and increasing U.S. Navy port visits to Vietnam.

Meanwhile, the Senate will continue to do its part. Last year, Senator Jack Reed and I worked together to create the Maritime Security Initiative. This half-a-billion dollar effort is enabling the Department of Defense to build the maritime capacity of our Southeast Asian partners. And I am happy to report that this year, the Committee acted in a bipartisan fashion to upgrade this initiative and provide new resources toward this effort.

Alongside this effort, Senator Graham took steps this year as Chairman of the State Foreign Operations Subcommittee to significantly increase Foreign Military Financing and International Military Education and Training for our partners in the region. This is another sign that the Congress is committed to expanding our initiatives in the Asia-Pacific.

American Leadership: Committing to Free Trade

But renewing American leadership in the Asia-Pacific is not just about our military. I believe the strongest signal the United States can send right now of our enduring commitment to Asia’s security and prosperity would be for Congress to ratify the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP).

TPP offers a historic opportunity to reduce trade barriers, open new markets, promote exports, and keep U.S. companies competitive in one of the most economically vibrant and fastest-growing regions in the world.

And I believe it is the responsibility of conservatives like myself and conservative organizations like The Heritage Foundation—long the intellectual center of gravity for free trade—to help lead this fight. This institution has led the advance of economic freedom at home and abroad for decades. Heritage has long taught us that we must continue this fight for one simple reason: free markets and free trade work. They benefit us.

On the other hand, if TPP fails, American leadership in the Asia-Pacific may very well fail with it. I recently asked the Prime Minister of Singapore what would happen if the United States fails to ratify TPP. His response: “You’re finished in Asia.”

Let me repeat: “You’re finished in Asia.”

As we speak, China is pushing its own regional trade agreement, which excludes the United States. China wants to rewrite the economic rules in Asia at our expense. And if we fail to ratify TPP, we’re giving them a free hand to do it.

So have no doubt: The stakes for TPP are high. And America must get this right.

Conclusion: Confidence in America’s Future

My friends: America has faced far more profound problems in my lifetime than anything we confront today, and we not only made it through these earlier challenges, we came out stronger and better-off. We have consistently arisen to new and brighter mornings in America. America has been counted out before, but we’ve always proved the doubters wrong. No one has ever made money betting against America, and my friends, I don’t think now is a good time to start.

I am an optimist about America’s future. I am confident in America because our economy remains the most dynamic driver of global growth, and its capacity for reinvention and innovation is virtually limitless.

I am confident in America because new technologies are unlocking vast sources of energy in our country, and America is now on a path to becoming a net exporter of oil and gas.

I am confident in America because our institutions of higher education are the envy of the world, because our society continues to reward risk-taking and an entrepreneurial spirit, and because we continue to attract the best and the brightest talent from across the globe and integrate it into our diverse society.

I am confident in America because the U.S. military remains the most effective and combat-proven force in the world.

And though we Americans will always have plenty of spirited debates, I am confident in America because our political system still has the capacity to do big important things that are vital to America’s future.

Winston Churchill once said: “You can always count on Americans to do the right thing—after they’ve tried everything else.” Perhaps there is something to that. But when it comes to the choice of whether to draw inward, or to remain engaged in Asia and the world, I believe the choice is clear. And I believe America will do the right thing to sustain our historic role as a Pacific power long into the future.

The Honorable John McCain represents Arizona in the United States Senate and serves as Chairman of the Senate Committee on Armed Services. 


John McCain
Sen. John McCain

Chairman, Senate Committee on Armed Services