The Obama administration’s reaffirmation of American engagement in the Asia-Pacific region for strategic and economic reasons is welcome, but describing it as a “pivot” toward the region in the wake of U.S.-led wars in Iraq and Afghanistan neglects the continuity through decades of U.S. involvement in the region, three senior foreign policy figures from the United States, Japan and South Korea said at a forum sponsored by the United States Institute of Peace (USIP) on December 15.

The Obama administration’s reaffirmation of American engagement in the Asia-Pacific region for strategic and economic reasons is welcome, but describing it as a “pivot” toward the region in the wake of U.S.-led wars in Iraq and Afghanistan neglects the continuity through decades of U.S. involvement in the region, three senior foreign policy figures from the United States, Japan and South Korea said at a forum sponsored by the United States Institute of Peace (USIP) on December 15.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, in a speech at the East-West Center in Honolulu last month, referred to “America’s pivot toward the Asia-Pacific.” In high-level meetings in the region, President Barack Obama and other administration officials reiterated the theme, which has reverberated widely among the news media and policy analysts on both sides of the Pacific.

USIP’s senior advisor for international affairs, Stephen Hadley, praised Obama’s Asia swing as successful but added, “The whole pivot notion is a little misplaced as a historical matter.” Hadley, the national security advisor in the second term of President George W. Bush, noted , “We have been in Asia for the last 60 years….We are going to be in Asia for a long time.”

Hadley urged stronger U.S. efforts to forge free-trade relationships in the Asia-Pacific, calling it “a region knitting itself together” with such agreements. “My message to any administration is, ‘Get in the game.’”

Ambassador Miyajima Akio, a Japanese diplomat who is serving in the Foreign Policy Bureau at Japan’s Foreign Ministry, lauded the Obama administration’s “reconfirmation of the U.S. commitment to the Asia-Pacific region,” saying it has sent “a very positive message.”

Chung Eui-yong, a former South Korean ambassador and lawmaker, also welcomed Washington’s signals “to get more engaged and more involved” in the region. The United States has continued to be Asia’s “dominant player, in our minds,” said Chung, who is co-chairman of the Standing Committee of the International Conference of Asian Political Parties.

The three offered comments on the U.S. role in Asia, on China’s rise and on dealing with a nuclear-armed North Korea at a USIP public symposium, “Post-2012 Northeast Asia: Challenges & Opportunities for the U.S., Japan and South Korea.” The event was part of USIP’s ongoing Trilateral Dialogue in Northeast Asia (TDNA),  a “Track 1.5” project that has brought together both government and think tank participants from the three countries. U.S. government participants include those from the departments of State and Defense, the National Security Council and congressional staffs. The TDNA initiative has had six rounds of trilateral discussions, with the aim of providing a flexible, nonpartisan mechanism for dialogue on present and future policy.

On China, Hadley said that the U.S. presence in Asia was useful not for containing or surrounding China but rather as a way of reminding Beijing that it needs to pursue legitimate goals in the region and not “throw its weight around.” He described China, along with India, as “surging powers economically and in every other way.”

Chung said South Korea’s view is that China is mostly “a status quo power [that] doesn’t want to see big change.” China is now South Korea’s largest economic partner, and Seoul wants to “try to trust them as much as possible.” Added Chung, “Containing China is not feasible and is not desirable, either.”

All three commentators were pessimistic about efforts to persuade North Korea to bargain away its nuclear weapons and programs.

North Korea “reneged”—as Hadley put it--on a 2005 deal that emerged from six-nation negotiations to denuclearize it in return for diplomatic and economic incentives. [Hadley and the other commentators spoke about possible instability in North Korea just two days before the death of its leader, Kim Jong-il, on Dec. 17.] Now, facing a succession in North Korea from Kim Jong-il to his third son, Kim Jong-eun, Pyongyang probably does not see the present as a time to make a deal, said Hadley. Further, he said that a bipartisan consensus has developed in Washington against paying what he described as “one of the world’s worst regimes” to quit its nuclear drive.

Chung said that past South Korean government policies keyed toward engaging North Korea with incentives had failed to change the North, but the six-party process remains the “only alternative” to resolve the nuclear issue.

Miyajima, for his part, argued that leadership changes in the United States, South Korea and Japan that are certain or at least possible in the coming year are not a barrier to a nuclear deal. Rather, he said, North Korea has yet to make “a strategic decision” to abandon its nuclear weapons, and the three nations must be patient and maintain diplomatic coordination.

The panelists also touched on the question of a North Korean collapse. Hadley said that U.S. officials in the Bush administration attempted to engage Chinese counterparts quietly on the issue but that the effort did not succeed. Chinese policy changed in 2009, he said, apparently reflecting greater concern in Beijing about a North Korean transition than about cooperating with the United States on the nuclear issue. He noted recent growth in Chinese trade with North Korea and statements “defending” the regime in Pyongyang.

A sudden North Korean collapse, said Chung, would be “very unfortunate” for the South, and dramatic change would give a China that is focused on regional stability “a high hand in dealing with the situation.” Given the stakes, “China will not allow it,” Chung said.

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