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Needed: An American Vision for East Asia and the U.S.-ROK Alliance

The conventional wisdom among Asia specialists on both sides of the aisle has been that there would be little need for change in a new administration's policy toward Asia. At the same time, there is no question that America's preoccupation with Iraq, Afghanistan, and the Middle East has prioritized the question of how America's Asian allies might make "out of area" contributions while seemingly neglecting the long-term challenge posed by the rise of China. The virtually exclusive focus of former Assistant Secretary for East Asia Chris Hill on North Korea appeared on occasion to take the support of America's Asian allies for granted.

In a February address to The Asia Society prior to her first foreign visit as secretary of state, Hillary Clinton offered reassurance to allies in Japan and South Korea while signaling the prospect of greater American attention to Southeast Asia and acknowledging China as a critical partner in addressing a wide range of global issues. The trip set the stage for a potentially more focused and reengaged approach on Asia's intrinsic strategic importance to the United States--not just for the support it can provide to promoting stabilization in other areas or for its importance as a partner in trade and investment.

The Center for New American Security in its new report entitled "The United States and the Asia-Pacific Region: Security Strategy for a New Administration," offers a major effort to provide a blueprint for anchoring Asia within a strategic vision of U.S. interests in the region. The report argues that the United States should reassert its strategic presence in East Asia, maintain a strong network of bilateral alliances, articulate a realistic and pragmatic China policy and support a stable peace in the Taiwan strait, sustain military engagement and forward presence, engage more actively in regional and multilateral fora, prevent nuclear proliferation and promote nuclear stability and disarmament, counter American Islam, strengthen American soft power, cooperate on non-traditional security challenges, and promote open and free trade.

The report carries added significance given the sponsorship role of Kurt Campbell as Secretary Clinton's likely point person for Asia, who will be responsible for providing leadership and providing precisely the type of vision that has been laid out in the report. In combination with a second CNAS report entitled "Going Global: The Future of the U.S.-ROK Security Alliance," in which Victor Cha argues that the U.S.-ROK alliance should stand for common values rather than simply standing against North Korea, that alliance institutions should be regarded as having intrinsic value in and of itself rather than simply strategic (or utilitarian) value, and that alliance planners must "run hard--do not coast" to achieve alliance objectives.

My recent report from the Center for Strategic and International Studies entitled "Pursuing a Comprehensive Vision for the U.S.-ROK Alliance" attempts to provide a comprehensive vision for alliance cooperation (extending beyond North Korea and beyond the peninsula) that addresses specific new areas in which the United States and South Korea might expand their global, regional, and functional cooperation. An expanded scope and South Korea's transformation as a leading economy and vibrant democracy have created new potential for alliance cooperation in a wide range of areas including peacekeeping, overseas development assistance, and post-conflict stabilization, themes that have been emphasized in South Korean president Lee Myung Bak's own positive vision of a "global Korea."

Presidents Obama and Lee will have an opportunity to lay the foundations for a U.S.-ROK alliance based on a practical and strategic convergence of interests. Moreover, U.S.-South Korean cooperation will be critical to the success of G-20 efforts to address the global financial crisis as Seoul leads and prepares to host that meeting in 2010. For a South Korea surrounded by larger powers but which has emerged on the global stage as a key player in the G-20, the alliance with the United States can be a platform upon which South Korea will be able to project its voice more effectively, both within East Asia and in global forums. For a United States that continues to rely on allied cooperation for strategic presence in Asia and to lay the foundations for an Asian regionalism that will reinforce free markets and shared values of political openness and democratic participation, South Korea increasingly provides an effective point of entry for working effectively on both the North Korean nuclear issue as well as shaping the rules of regional free trade arrangements.

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