The U.S. Pivot to Asia: Five Minutes with Former NSC Director for Asian Affairs Victor Cha

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On April 10, former Director for Asian Affairs at the White House’s National Security Council (NSC) Victor Cha sat down with a Georgetown Journal editor to discuss the future of U.S. military projection in the Pacific, Obama’s track record on economic integration with East Asia, and recent reforms in Burma and North Korea.

GJIA: Do you think the Obama administration is properly preparing the U.S. military for long-term projection in the Pacific? What steps can the U.S. take to reduce the long-term risks of conflict in the region?

VC: Yes, certainly. They have talked about the strategic pivot to Asia, and in a time of fiscal austerity, where the United States has to be very careful about what it can do overseas, they have made very clear that Asia is their priority. The U.S. plans to remain an Asia-Pacific power and that helps to reduce the long-term risks of conflict in the region. One of the biggest risks for regional instability would involve a power vacuum. For the past sixty years the U.S. has been the anchor of stability– if somehow that anchor were to uproot and run adrift, you could have all sorts of problems in the region related to China’s rise and potential miscalculation.

GJIA: With the continuing rise of China and increasing instability in the DPRK, do you believe that the U.S., Japan, and the Republic of Korea will become stronger allies? In what ways might the relationships between these three powers change?

VC: From a U.S. perspective, trilateral coordination with Japan and South Korea has historically, and continues to be, one of the key elements of U.S. strategy in Asia. These are our democratic allies, and we have more in common with these countries than we do with almost anybody else— both in the region and globally. So yes, I think with China’s rise, and with the potential for instability in North Korea, trilateral coordination becomes more important. The Obama administration recognizes that, and they’ve been pushing for formalizing this trilateral coordination through the establishment of a secretariat in South Korea. There is a secretariat for ASEAN+3, the plus three being Japan, Korea, and China. But there isn’t one for the U.S., Japan, and Korea partnership yet. They believe that’s important and I agree.

Also, people shouldn’t take this idea of trilateral cooperation as being a way to contain China. It’s a natural alignment in the sense that these are the two key allies of the U.S., and Japan and Korea don’t want containment. But it helps to shape China’s rise. One of the ways you shape China’s rise is by having these associations with countries who believe in open political systems, free and fair trade, and compliance with international and global norms. Not with some type of military containment.

GJIA: What is your opinion of the Obama administration’s economic policy toward East Asia?

VC: The most important and unexpected accomplishment in terms of economic integration is a big push in the last couple of years on trade issues. Starting with passage of the U.S.-Korea free trade agreement (KORUS) and then the Transpacific Partnership (TPP), the first term of the Obama administration left two very important institutions promoting economic integration in East Asia. It’s unexpected because this administration initially wanted to call a timeout on all the free trade agreements.

GJIA: How does the current situation in Burma compare to that in North Korea? What lessons could North Korea take from Burma’s liberalizing reforms?

VC: One of the big differences between Burma and North Korea is that in the Burmese case, you don’t have a cult of personality, which I think makes the military junta in Burma more rational. The North Korean leadership is completely preoccupied with this young kid, Kim Jong-Un. Another contrast lies in the Burmese government’s ability to clearly signal their intentions and interests in reform through their treatment of Aung San Suu Kyi. You don’t have anything like that in the North Korean case; there is no readily available person through which they can send such messages.

A powerful symbol of North Korean reform involve an improvement in their human rights record by improving access to food, not throwing people into gulags, or improving freedom to travel.

GJIA: How do you think the upcoming Chinese leadership transition will affect China-DPRK relations?

VC: China is systematically pursuing a strategy where it wants to keep the North Korean regime afloat while supporting its leadership transition, and that continues to be their policy. I don’t think this will change under Xi Jinping because this isn’t a policy of Hu Jintao’s— this is China’s policy and the way China sees the peninsula.

GJIA: Do you plan to return to the world of policy full-time in the future?

VC: I have no idea if I plan to return to public service. The first time you do it, you do it because you see it as a great opportunity and privilege to serve your country. But it’s not easy to do – it’s personally very difficult on your family. Especially because you’re working fourteen hours a day and travelling a lot, which is really difficult for families. And the pay is not good – in that sense it really is public service. So when you think about doing it again, you want to do it but you want to do it under the right conditions. The thing I’d really like to do eventually is to take a sabbatical and do research, but it’s hard to take a sabbatical while running this program.

This interview was conducted and edited by Kenneth Anderson, a second year student in the Masters of Science of Foreign Service program at Georgetown University and managing editor of the Business & Economics section of the Georgetown Journal. Meredith Strike, Section Editor for the Journal and a sophomore at the School of Foreign Service, transcribed this interview.

Dr. Victor Cha is a professor of government and director of the Asian Studies in the Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University, and a senior advisor at the Center for Strategic International Studies (CSIS). From 2004 to 2007, he served as Director for Asian affairs in the White House’s National Security Council (NSC), with responsibility for Japan, North and South Korea, Australia, New Zealand, and the Pacific Island nations. He also served as the U.S. deputy head of delegation for the Six-Party Talks.

Dr. Cha received a B.A. in Economics from Columbia University in 1983, an M.A. in Philosophy, Politics, and Economics from the University of Oxford in 1986, a MIA from Columbia in 1988, and a Ph.D. in Political Science from Columbia in 1994.

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