At the recent APEC and ASEAN trade meetings President Obama was concerned about balancing strategic and national security with global trade and competitiveness of U.S. firms. He also set a clearer tone for U.S. foreign policy, one promoting a rules-based system. This has been an unreported story.
In announcing the Pacific century for U.S. foreign policy, the President needed to balance the increasing China-bashing in the United States, growing concern over China’s military potential, and trade relations with China.
But the President was not only interested in diplomacy, trade and security concerns, he was also mindful of the global legal system and its promise of stability.
The President cited legal rules governing trade and international relations. In particular, he wanted China to play by trade rules and law of the sea rules as they pertain to the South China Sea. (Unfortunately, the U.S had not yet ratified the long-standing Vienna Convention on the Law of the Seas, which China has done.)
President Obama focused on peacefully managing the complex inter-related trade and national security aspects of U.S. – China relations. He wanted to demonstrate to countries of the region the staying power of the U.S. as it enters the endgame in Iraq and Afghanistan. Thus, the President declared a renewed military commitment to Australia and concern over conflicting territorial claims in the South China Sea.
Tom Donilon, President Obama’s National Security Adviser, subsequently wrote, “[The U.S.] requires the rights and responsibilities of nations are upheld …. By strengthening the international rules that must be the foundation of our shared future ….”
On balance the APEC and ASEAN meetings were beneficial. They sent a message that the U.S. administration intends to reenergize itself as an active participant in the Pacific region.
However, the most important long-term development at these summits was the President’s emphasis on the rights and obligations of nations as they participate in the international system.
This emphasis is important to regional and global systems as they evolve and as new actors rise and struggle to adapt. This more pragmatic and coherent U.S. approach to reliance on legal rules provides a framework for future U.S. policies despite political and economic dysfunction at home.
This rules-oriented approach to inter-state relations, balancing national interests with a developing multilateral system and institutions, reflects the President’s legal and professorial background. It complements and mirrors the traditional U.S. reliance on rules of law and institutions, both domestically and internationally.
Competing and conflicting interests are tricky to balance, as the APEC and ASEAN summits evidence, but so far so good.