HUNTINGTON BEACH, CALIFORNIA – Speaking on March 13 in Singapore, Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop’s appeal for the United States to become more engaged in Asia as the “indispensable strategic power in the Indo-Pacific” was prescient given the challenges that the region presents to Washington and its allies. Bishop’s remarks serve as an important call to action for an increasingly inward-looking U.S.
The isolationist bent of the new administration is particularly ill-timed given Asia’s looming security challenges. Disagreements involving Beijing’s assertions of sovereignty over the South China Sea and its unilateral imposition of the East China Sea air defense identification zone, tensions over cyber espionage, geopolitic, human rights and the recent installation of the U.S. anti-ballistic missile system in South Korea are just some of the security issues facing the region.
Adding to the tensions, U.S. President Donald Trump earlier challenged (then wisely walked back) the “one-China” policy while accusing Beijing of inventing global warming as a hoax and of being a currency manipulator who trades unfairly. China, for its part, has criticized U.S. interference in other countries’ internal affairs and has denounced the U.S. for militarizing the South China Sea and for trying to contain China, impeding its rise.
Furthermore, North Korea’s advancing nuclear weapons program and continued missile tests show Pyongyang’s resolve to develop the capability to strike the continental U.S. This menace presents an unacceptable risk to Washington, thereby raising the chance of preemptive U.S. military action.
As explained by Bishop, these security concerns are behind the desire of U.S. allies wanting the U.S. to lead in the Pacific. They are also the source of their anxiety amid the absence of clear signals from the Trump administration as to whether or not it intends to continue America’s traditional role as the security guarantor of the region.
Bishop’s assertion — that the U.S. has an obligation to the region’s security and liberal order — thus far appears to have fallen on deaf ears in Washington by a White House and Congress consumed by the fight against Islamic State, controversies involving Russia as well as hot button U.S. domestic issues.
The matters raised by Bishop’s remarks deserve Washington’s prompt attention given their scope and the implications to the U.S., its partners and allies.
Yet, Bishop’s admonition of American isolationism has not been limited to foreign and military affairs. It has also addressed Washington’s new protectionist policies. Bishop criticized the new U.S. “economic nationalist agenda,” arguing that it runs counter to the U.S.-built postwar economic integration that helped to create the economic successes of Australia, China and others.
These comments coincided with Australia’s hosting of Chinese Premier Li Keqiang in which both countries publicly expressed their opposition to economic protectionism. This development contains more than a touch of irony to free traders, as Beijing has long been criticized for what many allege to be its unfair trading practices.
In unrelated comments, former U.S. Secretary of State George Shultz seems to have picked up where Bishop left off. In a March 26 interview with CBS’ “Face The Nation,” Shultz stressed the need for Washington to maintain the postwar liberal order that it helped create and to provide leadership on the world stage, stating that no other world powers were equipped to do so.
Noting the U.S. leadership examples set by President Harry Truman, George Marshall and Dean Acheson in the years following World War II, Shultz spoke of the importance of today’s leaders remaining engaged with the world and confronting its hard truths rather than withdrawing from its challenges. He maintained that U.S. allies require reassurance and advocated for a foreign policy focused on making “life better” for both the world and the U.S., explaining that a “healthy world is to our advantage”.
Shultz’s words of guidance come at an important time as the new administration’s Asia policy unfolds amid Chinese President Xi Jinping’s visit this week with Trump at Mar-a-Lago, during which trade and North Korea will be discussed, among other issues.
Good advice can come unexpectedly from different sources, and Washington should take what it can get. Thankfully Bishop and Shultz spoke up. It’s time Trump and Congress hear them out.
Ted Gover teaches political science at Central Texas College, U.S. Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton , California.