American success in Asia depends critically on three fundamentals. First, Washington must attend to the health of its network of alliances and partnerships; second, we need a favorable military balance of power; and third, we must create conditions conducive to prosperity through free trade and economic liberalization. If the Obama administration is strong on these fundamentals, it will also have a more productive relationship with China. The Obama team must remember that China respects power foremost.
The key node in the network of alliances and partnerships is Japan. But there is little doubt that the change in government in Tokyo has caused confusion and sometimes hysteria in Washington. The Obama team should be at least as patient with Japan as it has been with Iran. The Japanese people voted to change an increasingly bureaucratic and unresponsive government. Many members of the newly ruling DPJ are novices in politics and foreign policy. But that does not make them reflexively hostile to the alliance. We are in danger of falling into a trap--we may make an anti-alliance stance popular in Japan. The people of Japan voted to end Japan's economic stagnation. They also want their country to become more "normal," which means less dependent on the United States and less restricted in military operations. The Obama team can tap into the aspirations of Japan by articulating a truly sustainable alliance for the 21st century, based on shared economic growth, more equal relations, and a role for Japan in international affairs commensurate with its power. Pushing hard for a seat on the Perm 5 would be a good start.
Further west, India is becoming the second most important American partner in Asia. President Bush opened up vast opportunities in the relationship by helping find a solution to the nettlesome question of India's nuclear status. But at the psychological level "Bush to India" does not compare with "Nixon to China." Obama can fix that by building and inspiring the connective tissue so critical to strong ties with India, both inside and outside his government. Consider this: when President Hu of China comes to town, at least five major U.S.-China organizations fall all over themselves to see which one can lay out the longest red carpet. There is no analogue with India. Obama can meet with U.S. CEOs, scholars, etc., and call them to action. How about a National Committee on U.S.-India Relations, for example?
As to the other two fundamentals, the need to build up our naval and air forces in the Pacific is self-evident. Our air assets are old and not up to the challenges posed by the PLA's increasingly lethal air and missile forces. Our naval fleet is shrinking. And finally, without a trade agenda we will be of marginal interest to Asians over time.
Dan Blumenthal is a resident fellow at AEI.