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Whose Pacific Century? The 113th Congress and Asia

Edward Gresser and Daniel Twining


    On the idle hill of summer,
    Sleepy with the flow of streams,
    Far I hear the steady drummer
    Drumming like a noise in dreams.
    —A.E. Housman

Housman's late Victorian poem evokes an idyllic landscape, troubled by the dim consciousness of looming crisis. In The Proud Tower, Barbara Tuchman used it as the epigraph for the diplomacies of activists, economists, and admirals in the first decade of the twentieth century, placing their hopes to avert confrontation through disarmament, logic, or deterrence against the economic growth and cultural exchange of the age, and against the war to come.

The poem is perhaps evocative again in the Asia of 2013, where territorial rivalries and hints of great-power confrontation are increasing in frequency and emotion despite sunny announcements of growth, investment, and development. It may be so as well in Washington, where the administration's broadly supported updating of Asia-Pacific policy is proceeding against a domestic-policy landscape of recurrent fiscal-policy crises and decisions made on budgetary grounds, whose future consequences for security may be very large.

The 113th Congress and the Asian Backdrop

Even more so than in a typical inaugural year, the 113th Congress will begin focused on domestic matters—in fact, with the third fiscal-policy crisis in eighteen months, as its members move seamlessly from "fiscal cliff" agreement to "debt ceiling" and "sequestration" confrontation. They will proceed to foreign policy and Asian affairs only later in 2013.But when they do so, members of Congress will face decisions ranging from very immediate questions of military deployment and legislative strategy for trade to longer-term questions about the multilateralism and engagement with China that have helped guide U.S. foreign policy for two generations. The list includes:

  • The planned withdrawal of combat forces from Afghanistan in 2014 and the future relationship with Pakistan
  • A decision on "trade promotion authority," or "fast track" rules, for future trade agreements, including the possible 2014 conclusion of a Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) agreement
  • The progress of last year's unexpected reconciliation with Burma/Myanmar, including the status of the recently waived investment and trade sanctions
  • The appropriate response to North Korea's aggressively advancing nuclear and missile programs
  • Stalemated negotiations on trade and climate change, in which apparently intractable divisions between China, India, and several other large middle-income nations, on the one hand, and the United States, on the other, make major multilateral agreements on any topic difficult to imagine for some time
  • Growing questions about China's regional diplomacy and maritime claims, which have deeply unsettled Asian security and forced both Congress and the Obama administration to think hard about the foundations of U.S.strategy in the region

To these topics, the 113th Congress will likely bring a strong bipartisan consensus. Congress appears, and in fact is, deeply divided on many issues, some of which have great relevance to the future of U.S.foreign policy. But policy toward Asia appears…

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