What the Bush Era Can Teach Us about Asia

Two schools of thought divide Washington's 'Asia hands.'

The Obama administration’s Asia policy has been built around the “pivot” or Rebalance to Asia, and—right or wrong—has been explained around a need for the United States to “refocus” on the Asia Pacific, after becoming bogged down in Iraq and Afghanistan. While this has a touch of partisanship to it, (“America never left,” some cry with exasperation), there is slight truth to the implicit criticism of Bush’s Asia policy. But it’s not the truth that most analysts expect. Rather than being about a loss of focus, it was more about the location of focus.

To borrow a framework developed by Michael Green at CSIS, it’s primarily based on the story of two teams within America’s bureaucracy. On the one side, you haveMahanians,” those who believe that America’s maritime allies are important, that Japan is America’s most important partner in the region, that Australia is a major ally and friend with whom there are cultural ties. Then, on the other side, you have “Continentalists,” those who believe that China is America’s biggest priority in Asia and that engagement, accommodation and assimilation of China—as a “responsible stakeholder”—should drive America’s Asia policy. Those Obama democrats who implicitly criticized the Bush administration for paying less attention to Asia are not criticizing the entire administration—they are really just criticizing the second term.

If we go back to early 2001, the first term of the Bush administration had an ‘all-star’ team of Asia hands, many of them who viewed Japan as America’s primary interlocutor in Asia. Arrayed around the impressive figure of Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage were a number of Japan hands (Torkel Patterson and Mike Green in the National Security Council) and Northeast Asia hands (Jim Kelly and Evans Revere in the State Department). They easily fit into Green’s Mahanian grouping and many followed Armitage’s lead, putting America’s alliances before China. Many had long and deep relationships with their defense counterparts. Armitage sustained long friendships with Australia’s pro-American prime minister John Howard and Ashton Calvert, secretary of the foreign affairs and trade department. Calvert and Armitage were both long-time friends with Japan’s ambassador to Washington Ryuzo Kato, who in turn was very close to Australia’s U.S. ambassador Michael Thawley.

It is no coincidence that the concept for the U.S.-Japan-Australia trilateral was developed during this period. Of course, the grounds for such a grouping had been set in the 1980s and 90s, but the long-standing friendships facilitated the ease with which these men could create a new type of grouping. Proposed informally by Calvert and his boss, Foreign Minister Alexander Downer, in conversations with Armitage and Kato, the concept was simply to tack the Australian delegation to a U.S.-Japanese strategic dialogue and discuss regional issues of common concern. This was precisely what occurred in the summer of 2002. While China and North Korea were often part of these early discussions in the background, the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq dominated the foreground, and the trilateral swiftly found a role as a means for the three to coordinate on these campaigns. The trilateral dialogues did not originate the plan to have Australian troops provide force protection to Japanese troops in Samawah Province, Iraq, but they certainly made the job easier—particularly as the Bush-Howard-Koizumi relationship developed more closely, and made the personal request of Howard by Koizumi possible.

The second Bush term does, perhaps, deserve some of the criticism implied by the “Rebalancers.” In many ways, things did change in terms of America’s focus in Asia after 2005. Armitage’s departure from State was a blow to the trilateral initiative, primarily because his replacement, Robert Zoellick was a Continentalist. He differed from Armitage in a number of important ways. First, his background was in trade, rather than defense. Thus, his experience dealing with Japanese diplomats came from a very different space. While deputy secretary, he allegedly revealed his anger about Japan’s ban on U.S. beef exports by declining to meet a senior Japanese delegation in Washington. Secondly, he viewed China as America’s primary focus in Asia; his trade background had also seen him negotiate China’s entry into the WTO in the Clinton administration, and his “responsible stakeholder” speech to the National Committee on U.S.-China Relations in 2005 favored an engagement-centered approach. Disinterested in the trilateral with Australia, he sought instead a new strategic dialogue with China. So, whether one likes it or not, there was a shift in the Bush administration’s Asia policy, but it was more of a shift in focus than a lack of focus: China over allies.