Improving the US economy doesn’t mean mercantilism and protection. Obama should dust off the free-trade agreement with ally South Korea and move it through Congress and he should move to conclude a comprehensive free trade-oriented Transpacific Partnership with APEC by next year. The US currently has two free-trade partners in the region: Australia and Singapore. By contrast, consider the proliferation of Chinese trade agreements with, among others, the 10-country ASEAN, New Zealand, Singapore, Pakistan and soon with a country that without the US would already have been swallowed whole — Taiwan.
Second, stand by the principles that have made the US great. Democratic presidents used to be famous — and dreaded in Asia — for speaking up for human rights. China’s human rights record is abysmal. Twenty years of US State Department human rights reports make that absolutely clear. We share basic democratic values with all of our treaty allies in the region. This distinction is a moral and strategic strength.
Third, sustain US capacity to engage in high-intensity conflicts. The US needs a military that can win its current conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq, but it must be no less able to deal effectively with an increasingly capable China. Procurement decisions like cancellation of the F-22 and shrinking their naval forces send allies a signal that their core interests — the things they are willing to fight for — lie in regions of the world where such assets are not necessary.
Fourth, talk clearly about the Chinese military threat and its relationship to territorial claims. Taiwan’s sovereignty remains “unsettled” in international law. The US should know that the Taiwanese consistently oppose unification with the mainland. Their economic ties to the mainland have not changed that. Taiwan needs the US presence to avoid being dragged unwillingly into unification. The single most important thing the administration can do to support Taiwan is to sell it the F-16s it so desperately needs.
There is another territorial issue once again gaining currency. China claims virtually all the South China Sea — an issue of particularly critical interest to the US’ treaty allies in the Philippines and friends in Vietnam. The demonstration effect of US naval vessels conducting operations in international waters is useful, but the US should also be explicit: The Chinese claim to the South China Sea is exceptional (not least because of the aggressiveness it takes in asserting it). It is not simply one co-equal claim among six.
Fifth, look, talk and behave like a superpower. A US president’s every move is frozen in time and scrutinized in the media. He should use these moments to convey US strength, not deference. In Asia, deference does not ease one into a relationship; it establishes the basis for the relationship. Why did the Chinese respond so hysterically to Obama’s sale of US$6.4 billion in arms to Taiwan and his meeting with the Dalai Lama? Because he created expectations in his first year in office that he would go the extra mile to avoid offending them.