Investing for the Pacific Century

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If budgets reflect interests and values, then our decisions in Asia today border on executive and legislative malpractice

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U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo recently completed a tour of the Indo-Pacific. The trip was meant to strengthen relationships with allies and partners in Southeast Asia and the South Pacific. It took place amid an ongoing national debate on how the United States should respond to China’s rise. 

Pompeo’s efforts must take stock of an under-appreciated reality: The scale of American diplomatic underinvestment in Asia defies belief. We must take steps to remedy that shortfall now if we want to meaningfully reassure our allies — and if we hope to operationalize any new strategy for the region.

While U.S. foreign policy in the 21st century has largely revolved around conflicts in the Near East, the world’s center of gravity has careened toward China, India, and the countries on their peripheries. Outside of the United States, the countries of this region are home to over half of the world’s population, Fortune 500 companies, and middle-class, in addition to over forty percent of global GDP and military spending. Fifty years ago, Asia would have barely registered on any of these dimensions besides population; fifty years from now, it may dominate all. It should therefore come as no surprise that most of Washington’s major geopolitical challenges — China, Russia, North Korea, nuclear proliferation, rising authoritarianism, human rights crises, and climate change, among others — are disproportionately located in Asia or influenced by its affairs.

Given Asia’s consequence today and in the future, the United States’ diplomatic underinvestment there is breathtaking. Take, for example, our actual diplomatic presence. While we routinely have one embassy per country, where we invest in additional consulates is a strategic choice. Consulates allow the United States to pursue its diplomatic, economic, public diplomacy, development, and exchange interests at a subnational level. Fewer than 30 percent of America’s consulates are in Asia. For context, there are six cities in China with roughly the population of New York City but without an American diplomatic presence. In India, five cities with roughly the population of Los Angeles are without an American presence. And three of the world’s 15 most populous countries — Bangladesh, the Philippines and Vietnam — have only one American consulate combined. 

U.S. underinvestment in Asia extends to more critical diplomatic tools. Less than 30 percent of our diplomatic programs budget goes to regional bureaus in Asia, and less than 20 percent of job positions affiliated with the State Department’s six regional bureaus are in Asia (excluding Afghanistan and Pakistan, where numbers surged thanks to the still-ongoing war in the former). The Trump administration hopes to make matters worse. Its 2020 diplomatic programs budget request for East Asian and Pacific Affairs asks for 30 percent fewer dollars than were spent in 2018. These shortfalls extend to our foreign aid budgets. In 2017, the last year with complete data, only 12 percent of U.S. economic aid and one-third of U.S. military aid went to Asia. Exclude Afghanistan and Pakistan, and Asia’s share of our global economic and military aid budget plummets to a paltry 7 percent and 2 percent, respectively.

Without sufficient personnel or resources, our world-class diplomats and development professionals cannot devote the time or money needed to maintain strong relations with our partners in Asia, especially as China courts them with significant investments through its Belt and Road Initiative. If budgets reflect interests and values, then our decisions in Asia today border on executive and legislative malpractice.

American leaders and policy experts have in the past decade expressed the importance of establishing a stronger American presence in Asia, most notably through the Obama administration’s “rebalance” strategy. Contrary to Secretary Pompeo’s recent suggestion, the Obama administration made real progress, especially (though not exclusively) militarily, in shifting the government’s focus. But significant work remains to be done.

The good news is that some of our leaders have recognized the imbalance and have taken action to begin remedying the shortfall. Last year, Congress passed the BUILD Act, which empowers the new International Development Finance Corporation (IDFC) to lend $60 billion to finance development projects globally. The IDFC should develop formal processes to accord preference to strategic investments in Asia (for example, projects that provide sound alternatives to China’s BRI). Congress also recently passed the Asia Reassurance Initiative Act, which appropriates more than $1.8 billion yearly from 2019 and 2023 for various U.S. projects in Asia. 

But if we intend to protect our interests and values, these steps must be the beginning of sharpening our non-military tools, not the end. We will need bold ideas to right the diplomatic imbalance in Asia without shortchanging other priorities. Should we build 25 new consulates in Asia, and where? How many new career diplomats must we hire with Asia-relevant advanced degrees and language skills, and where should we send them? Should we double our foreign aid budget, directing the lion’s share of the increase to Asia? 

Trump’s all-out assault on the State Department has, ironically, created an opportunity to put forward ambitious visions to reinvigorate American diplomacy — and presidential candidates are beginning to come forward with ideas. We must collectively use this moment to put forward substantive proposals, debate them, and lay the groundwork in Congress to bring them to life. Whether the ongoing strategic debate ultimately anchors our Asia strategy in managing competition with China, reinvigorating our alliances, or another orienting principle, we will struggle to operationalize it if we do not start acting now. It’s long past time that we fully invest in our diplomatic tools in Asia, where our priorities in the Pacific century will, and must, lie.

Naz El-Khatib is a Policy Fellow and Advisor at National Security Action as well as a participant in Outside Voices, a Center for American Progress initiative that amplifies the ideas of rising foreign policy professionals. Abby Bard is a former research associate for Asia policy at the Center and a co-founder of Outside Voices. The views expressed are the authors’ own.