Foreign Affairs Focus: Tom Donilon on U.S. Asia Policy
Gideon Rose, editor of Foreign Affairs, interviews Tom Donilon, former U.S. national security adviser.
(Kevin Lamarque / Courtesy Reuters)

Gideon Rose, editor of Foreign Affairs, interviews Tom Donilon, former U.S. national security adviser. Donilon discusses the Obama administration's "pivot" strategy. A transcript is available below:

ROSE: Hi, there. I'm Gideon Rose and welcome to another edition of Foreign Affairs Focus. Today we have the great privilege of talking to Former National Security Adviser Tom Donilon, one of America's most distinguished and experienced public servants who served under three different presidents and most recently in the Obama Administration as the president's chief foreign policy aide.

So Tom, Let's talk a little bit about the rebalancing or what used to be also called the pivot to Asia. Why did your administration put this policy in place and what is the status of it now?

DONILON: Yeah. Well, the policy was put in place at the outset of the administration. And when we came into office, as you would imagine, we went through an exercise asking ourselves where we were overinvested and where we were underinvested in the world, where we wanted to change the footprint in the face of the United States and the world.

We determined that from a geographic perspective, and no other elements to this, from a geographic perspective, that we were overinvested in the Middle East, particularly with respect to military operations, but that we were underinvested in Asia and that we were underinvested across a range of dimensions and the President set about to adjust in a rebalanced Asia. Now it includes, as I said, a range of things that we put in place, not just military security aspects, although those are important. And so, we have deepened our alliances there and we've taken a number of steps in terms of a presence in Asia from a security perspective. But also includes diplomatic efforts, institution building and economic efforts.

ROSE: We've talked about rising China and the U.S.-China bilateral relationship which, obviously, something you try to manage very carefully in Washington. Do you also worry about China's relationships with other powers? Are you worried about Chinese-Japanese relations or Chinese actions in the South China Sea, more generally?

DONILON: Very much so. A productive and constructive and engaged relationship with China was an essential part of the rebalance as well. We have, obviously, partners and allies in the region and they look to us to support them, meet our obligations, provide the kind of security platform we've provided out there for over six decades. But they also rely on the United States to have a production and constructive relationship with China, and that's another aspect of the obligations that we have. So we do engage with China, and we are seen by our allies and partners as having that obligation.

Now we very much are concerned about a number of the dynamics in Asia, including between and among various countries, especially right now in Northeast Asia where there really are very high tensions.

ROSE: And so, do you try to manage those or just stay out and hope they turn out OK?

DONILON: Well, we certainly encourage the peaceful resolution of these tensions. And it is not constructive in Asia, for example, to have the current level of tension between China and Japan, the second, third largest economies in the world. And the United States obviously encourages a calm and peaceful resolution of issues among these countries.

Now you had for, for example, most recently a step by the Chinese which really did unnecessarily raise tensions and that was a declaration of an air defense identification zone. In that case, the United States said we wouldn't recognize it. We reinforced our and restated strongly our commitment to our ally Japan and called upon Japan and China to find mechanisms to discuss this.

ROSE: During the cold war, the United States biggest enemies it didn't have much trade with and its biggest trading partners were democratic allies. Now as you look forward with China, we're in a kind of rivalry in which we are trading with the enemy or at least our rival in certain respects. Does that complicate matters in terms of managing a relationship?

DONILON: Well, there are competitive and cooperative aspects in the relationship between China and the United States and it's a complicated and varied relationship. And the economic relationship is an important part of that relationship. It's very different between -- as compared to the relationship between the United States and the Soviet Unions.

The United States undertook a policy of containment for the Soviet Union, isolating the Soviet Union. In sharp contrast, of course, we half- a-trillion-dollar-a-year relationship with China. It's entirely different, an entirely different approach.

ROSE: And yet, you hear the Chinese worry that we are trying to contain them or block their riots?

DONILON: Yeah. And in fact, of course, the truth is is that for presidents since the mid-1970s, we've had across bipartisan administrations we have undertaken to integrate China into the world economy and into the world international system and have done just the opposite, frankly, with respect to containment.

What the United States is doing, though, in Asia and it's important, is again reinforcing the role that it played for over half a century in Asia, and that has been -- Asia has benefited from that. Of course, the principal reason that Asia has undergone this great social and economic development has been more for their people. But the United States has played a key role, and the Chinese understand this. But the importance of the United States being or maintaining that platform out there is very, very important. And the rebalance, of course, was a reaffirmation of that traditional role as well as a declaration of the interest going forward that we share with Asia, the most economically dynamic place in the world.

ROSE: You talk about economic dynamism. Is the Trans-Pacific Partnership a trade pact that you helped shepherd in its early stages? Is that a good -- a key part of this dynamism going forward?

DONILON: It is a key part of the dynamism going forward, and it's a key part of the rebalance. As I said, the rebalance has a number of elements to it, security, political, diplomatic institution building. But it also has an economic element to it, a win-win element to it, with respect to economics as well. And the trade -- Trans-Pacific Partnership is a centerpiece of the economic element of the rebalance to Asia. It's a really important part of our rebalance and it's a really important element of U.S. leadership in the region.

ROSE: Do you worry that Congress might block that by not giving the president trade promotion authority?

DONILON: I'm concerned about that and I think that, in fact, that the United States Congress should pass trade promotion authority that can support what's going to be a really important agreement in Asia. So it's the most important trade negotiation underway in the world. It's an important element of U.S. leadership, and I think the facts are that it will inert to the economic benefits of the United States.

ROSE: In the longrun, are you optimistic or pessimistic about the U.S.-China relationship?

DONILON: I think that there are responsibilities on both sides here. As you know, there's a -- there's one school of thought which would argue that, in fact, that there is inevitable conflict between a rising power and an existing power. I think the historical analogies there don't fit. And I think that I'm a strong believer in human agency and leadership. And I think with wise leadership that we actually can find and will find a constructive relationship between the United States and China going forward. It's been -- the relationship that we have today with China couldn't have been imagined at the time of the opening of China in the 1970s, in terms of its scale, things we work on together, the exchanges we have, the depth of our relationship. And it's absolutely critical for us to have to continue to stay on that path and very consciously work through the competitive aspects in a constructive way.

ROSE: It's a good place in which to end. Thank you very much, Tom. Tom Donilon, talking about U.S.-Asia relationship.

DONILON: Thanks, Gideon.

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