Manifest Destiny with a 21st Century Face

‘America’s future is linked to the future of the Asia-Pacific region, and the future of this region depends on America’

US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, in a policy speech on January 14 at the East-West Center in Honolulu, Hawaii, defined America’s future as linked to the future of the Asia-Pacific region,laid out principles that “define America’s engagement and leadership in the region” – and credited the East-West Center, now half a century old, with having played a seminal role in developing America’s relationship with Asia.

During the five decades since the East-West Center opened as a major element of American projection into Asia and the Pacific, no region has undergone a more dramatic transformation, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton says. “The Center has been part of this sea change, helping to shape ideas and train experts. I thank all of you for bringing greater awareness and understanding to the economic, political and security issues that dominate the region and the world today,” she said.

Clinton noted that President Obama’s mother, Ann Dunham, had been an East-West Center scholar when she pursued her graduate studies in anthropology, focusing on the emerging field of microfinance. Obama himself spent his formative years in Hawaii and Indonesia, a background that she said fostered a world view that “reflects his appreciation of – and respect for ­ Asia and its people.”

Speaking at an event that was meant to kick off her Asian tour and include a visit to Indonesia – the rest of the trip was cancelled because of the earthquake disaster in Haiti – she said that nearly a year into the Obama administration, it should be clear that the Asia-Pacific relationship is a priority for the United States. “We are working to deepen our historic ties, build new partnerships, work with existing multilateral organisations to pursue shared interests, and reach beyond governments to engage directly with people in every corner of this vast region,” she said.

In recent decades the Asia-Pacific region has undergone unprecedented transformations. “Asian countries that were destitute a generation ago now boast some of the highest living standards in the world,” she said. “In the space of two generations, Asia has become a region in which the old is juxtaposed with the new, a region that has gone from soybeans to satellites, from rural outposts to gleaming mega-cities, from traditional calligraphy to instant messaging, and, most importantly, from old hatreds to new partnerships.”

This progress is the product of hard work and ingenuity multiplied across billions of individual lives, Clinton said, “and it has been sustained by the engagement, security and assistance provided by the United States.”

Clinton said Asian leaders had long talked about strengthening regional cooperation, and that regional institutions had already played a significant part in Asia’s evolution. “Yet looking forward, we know that they can – and I would argue must – work better,” she said. “There is now the possibility for greater regional cooperation, and there is also a greater imperative.”

She laid out several principles that she said “will define America’s continued engagement and leadership in the region, and our approach to issues of multilateral cooperation.”

First, she said, the United States’ longstanding nation-to-nation alliances are the cornerstone of US involvement in the region. She cited relationships with Japan, South Korea, Australia, Thailand and the Philippines as being among “the most successful bilateral partnerships in modern history” and said other bilateral relationships would continue to develop.

“The security and stability provided through these relationships have been critical to the region’s success and development,” she said. “…Our commitment to our bilateral relationships is entirely consistent with – and will enhance – Asia’s multilateral groupings.”

Second, she said, regional institutions and efforts should focus on clear and increasingly shared objectives, such as enhancing security and stability, expanding economic opportunity and growth, and fostering democracy and human rights.

“To promote regional security, we must address nuclear proliferation, territorial disputes and military competition – persistent threats of the 21st century,” Clinton said. “To advance economic opportunity, we must focus on lowering trade and investment barriers, improving market transparency, and promoting more balanced, inclusive and sustainable patterns of economic growth.”

Regional organisations such as APEC have already shown considerable progress in these areas, she said, and in addition the US is engaging in the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade negotiations as a mechanism for improving linkages among many of the major Asia-Pacific economies. In regard to democracy and human rights, Clinton applauded ASEAN’s decision to establish an Intergovernmental Commission on Human Rights. “Over time, we hope the commission and other regional initiatives will enhance respect for fundamental freedoms and human dignity throughout the region,” she said.

She cautioned, however, that in all these objectives, multilateral regional institutions must be effective and focused on delivering results. “It’s more important to have organisations that produce results, rather than simply producing new organisations,” she said.

As an example, she cited the international relief effort in the aftermath of the 2004 tsunami. In that case, Clinton said, “the world witnessed how concrete collective action and a relentless focus on results can provide hope in the face of tragedy.”

Clinton also said that since regional leaders must be flexible in pursuing the results they seek, the US would continue to support less formal multilateral arrangements focused on specific challenges, such as the Six Party talks on North Korea’s nuclear program, along with “sub-regional institutions that advance the shared interests of groups of neighbours.”

Finally, she emphasised that Asia-Pacific nations, including the US, need to decide which will be the “defining” regional organisations. “It’s important that we do a better job of trying to define which organisations will best protect and promote our collective future,” she said. “…The defining ones will include all the key stakeholders. And these may be well-established, like APEC, or they could be of more recent vintage, like the East Asia Summit, or more likely, a mix of well-established and new. This is a critical question that we must answer together through consultation and coordination.”

Clinton added that there is also a continuing need for an institution that is aimed at fostering economic integration of the region. “I think APEC is the organisation that we and our partners must engage in, ensuring that it moves toward fulfilling that responsibility,” she said.

Following her remarks, Clinton took several questions from East-West Center students in the audience. Vijoy Chattergy of Honolulu, a fellow in the East-West Center’s the Asia Pacific Leadership Programme, asked how Hawaii could best showcase itself when it hosts the APEC summit in November 2011.

“I don’t think it takes much to showcase Hawaii,” Clinton joked, saying that, if she could, she would come to the islands every month as a stopover on her on her travels, “but that would be too obvious.”

In a more serious vein, she added that APEC would provide an extraordinary opportunity for Hawaii, “which is such a meeting place for East and West. You have a lot of very smart, experienced leaders and experts … who can put together a program that not only showcases the culture and the history, but the diversity, the extraordinary mixture of people from across the Asia-Pacific region, and do so in a way that I think serves as a reminder to our friends coming about what is possible in the 21st century.”

Noting that her country only has one female legislator, Evelyn Pusal of Papua New Guinea asked the secretary how women can increase their rights in the region.

Women in many places still face legal, cultural political and barriers, Clinton responded. “They are not easily removed unless there are enough women exercising leadership,” she said, adding that to overcome such obstacles, a “critical mass” of support is needed from both women and men.

“The old habits that prevent women from participating just have to be taken head-on,” she said.

Qiong Jia, a graduate degree fellow from China, asked the secretary to respond to concern about US-China relations.

“We know we have differences,” Clinton said, but she added, “We’re working to develop a relationship that will be a mature one, that will not be knocked off course when one or the other does something we don’t agree with.”

Addressing scepticism that the US can develop a stable relationship with China, she said: “It is in both of our nations’ interests for China and the United States to have a productive relationship. It will be challenging and it will not come easily or quickly, but certainly President Obama and I are committed to that. And I hope that we have a similar level of commitment and confidence building in China as well.”

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