Evaluating the Pivot to Asia: Five Minutes with Walter Douglas

Following an event hosted by the Caravel featuring a panel of Asia experts, the Georgetown Journal of International Affairs sat down with one of the featured panelists, Michael Douglas, the Deputy Assistant Secretary in the Bureau of East Asian and Pacific Affairs, to discuss the Obama Administration’s pivot to Asia

GJIA: What have been the positive results of the pivot to Asia in the past eight years of the Obama administration?

WD: It really has been a success, because in many ways our engagement with Asia has increased and grown. And I want to stress that it is about all of Asia – not one country. It starts with our treaty allies – Japan, Korea, Philippines, and Australia – who are all absolutely vital to what we do out there. This engagement works not only with our partners, but also with nations like China. For example, we are working with China on climate change and other global issues. While there are some challenges, countries now come together through a number of forums that did not exist before, like the East Asia Summit. It is U.S. policy to use these summits as a way of engaging nations and breaking down some of the silos that may exist.

GJIA: What are the clashing strategic perceptions of both China and the United States? You stressed starting with our allies first, whereas China could be saying, “Well, we are the phone number for Asia, we should be the first stop for US strategic policy.” How do those views clash and how has the United States balanced those conceptions?

WD: The countries and people in the region generally look to the United States for their security. We have a very good track record for peace and security in the region, and nobody really wants that to change it. We are there for the long term, and there is no way we are moving out of the region. More Americans are studying Asian languages and more Asian students are coming into the United States, as shown in the tremendous increase in Chinese students coming studying here. Another part of the rebalance is that by 2020, 60% of the U.S. Navy, 60% of the Air Force, and 66% of the Marines will be in Asia. We are implementing a full range of policy tools and bringing resources back from Iraq and Afghanistan. The TPP has yet to go through, but we hope that it will be passed through this lame duck session of Congress, as it is absolutely vital to our strategy.

GJIA: President Duterte of the Philippines recently announced a “separation” from the United States. What do you make of the Philippines’s Duterte challenging our relationship with them?

WD: You have to look at this in both the long- and short-term. The Philippines are long-term treaty allies, and we expect them to stay that way. We aren’t completely sure of what they mean and what they want to do. However, I’m confident that we will work out these issues. Despite recent road bumps, we have had many successful interactions in Asia, just this year alone. The future is bright. People work together because their interests align.

GJIA: The next question is about policy tools. How do you see the United States balancing soft power and public diplomacy, as well as hard power and strength, as means for coercion and deterrence?

WD: The challenge is to make sure it’s all exactly lined up the way we want, which is the job of the White House and the National Security Council (NSC). We have many levers and these tools to use, so you look for and use the tool that can best help reinforce certain policies. For example, in the South China Sea, we have employed expert legal teams on the law of the sea, in addition to tapping our diplomats. The threat from North Korea, however, is going to take a military element to address. Once again, it’s the NSC that orchestrates the use of many of these tools.

GJIA: Can you highlight three or four key policy issues and challenges the next President is going to have to face immediately? What is a grand strategic view that may be in line with the rebalance in Asia, and how can the next President address the pivot’s legacy?

WD: I can’t speak so well about the future because it’s up to the next administration. I do think however, as you look at the three biggest challenges we face right now, key policy challenges will include North Korea, the TPP deal, and our relations with China. What the next administration chooses to do with those issues really is up to them. The challenges are, of course, to make that relationship between the United States and Asia stronger, and we’ve come a long way – but likely still have much more to do.

Walter Douglas is the Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Public Affairs and Public Diplomacy and for Regional and Security Policy in the Bureau of East Asian and Pacific Affairs at the U.S. Department of State in Washington, D.C. In that position, he oversees public diplomacy, political/military affairs, strategic planning, assistance, and other EAP priorities that cover the region.