How U.S. budget cuts will hit Asia diplomacy
February 27th, 2013
11:27 AM ET

How U.S. budget cuts will hit Asia diplomacy

By Matt Stumpf, Special to CNN

Editor’s note: Matt Stumpf is director of Asia Society’s Washington, DC office. The views expressed are his own.

In Asia, each day matters. Today, Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) economies will do almost $50 billion in trade, 44 percent of the world’s total. Today, as oil moves around the world, one-third of it will pass through the South China Sea or the adjacent Gulf of Thailand. The region’s economic transformation won’t rest – today, 40,000 people will move from the country to a city in China, and 1,335 new vehicles will take to the road in Delhi. Governments and businesses across Asia are each day making decisions that directly affect U.S. interests.

America’s future prosperity and security are in play in Asia, yet Washington has decided to go on break. On March 1, with no action by Congress, forced budget cuts – otherwise known as sequestration – will cut government spending across the board, a concept so obviously harmful that it was enacted only to force a more thoughtful compromise.

These cuts will undermine one of America’s most consequential commitments for the 21st century, namely to deepen its engagement in Asia. This focus on the world’s most economically vibrant region, where great and emerging powers navigate a complex mix of competition and cooperation, and where America’s leadership role is both desired and contested, is an essential element of any meaningful strategy to foster U.S. economic growth and global leadership.

This commitment is so critical that it’s one of the few issues on which Democrats and Republicans agree. The Obama Administration elevated Asia’s place in U.S. foreign policy rhetorically, secured a major diplomatic success in Myanmar, and rapidly reoriented defense planning to “rebalance” toward Asia.  These gains built on the success of the Bush administration in deepening partnership with India, strengthening Asian regional organizations and fostering the U.S. alliance with South Korea. The debate in Washington is no longer whether to focus on Asia, but how.

The forced budget cuts, though, will significantly constrain the “how.” The precise impact of sequestration is hard to know – plans are still being developed and the full impact will occur over years. But officials and analysts have already described cuts that would significantly undermine U.S. engagement in Asia.

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U.S. business opportunities in Asia will suffer. Secretary of State John Kerry has lauded the economic engagement work of U.S. embassies in Asia. With their help, Kerry noted, Orbital Sciences Corporation secured a $160 million deal to build a Thai broadcast satellite, Boeing received an $21.7 billion order (its largest ever for commercial jets) from Indonesia’s Lion Air, and General Electric has sold $40 million in locomotives to Indonesia’s state railroad, in a country where it has invested $1.2 billion.

Deputy Secretary of Commerce Rebecca Blank has reported that the International Trade Administration will reduce support for U.S. exporters in foreign markets by almost $15 million a year, forego plans to place new staffers in new markets and decrease trade enforcement activities by $7 million. These global cuts will certainly affect the region of America’s greatest economic opportunity.

The Defense Department has warned of a “crisis of readiness,” with notable impacts on the Asia-Pacific. The Navy plans to cut the activity of its fleet in the Asia-Pacific by a third. The Army warned that “Combined with previous cuts that have already been approved, [sequestration] will result in a total reduction of at least 189,000 personnel from the force, but it'll probably be higher than that.”

Diplomatic and aid efforts also face cuts. The United States has benefited greatly in Asia from the help it has lent in times of crisis, including during the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami and the 2010 floods in Pakistan. Yet, $200 million will be cut from humanitarian assistance.

U.S. development programs like Feed the Future and the Global Health Initiative could be constrained. America’s development experts are active in Bangladesh, a focus country for these two initiatives and the President’s Global Climate Change effort. These experts are making hard-won progress on economic growth and health, so today less than a third of Bangladeshis live on $1.25 a day or less, according to USAID, compared with 57 percent in 1991.

Practical services that support America’s engagement in Asia are at risk. Cuts to visa processing, for example, would limit U.S.-Asia trade, educational and cultural exchange, and people-to-people engagement.

Finally, U.S. leadership in Asia derives in great measure from its economic might.  This too will be diminished.  According to the Bipartisan Policy Center, “the sequester could push the nation into sub-2 percent GDP growth for 2013 and perhaps 2014.”

These cuts are why many in Asia may hope for a robust U.S. role, but worry Washington won’t deliver. Certainly, there is room in the federal budget for sensible cuts. But making blind cuts undermines confidence in the United States as a practitioner of “smart power,” and renders hollow America’s stated commitment to help build a prosperous and peaceful Asia-Pacific with its partners.

2013 should be a year of American renewal. The economy is finding its footing and more Americans are going back to work. U.S. forces are withdrawing from Afghanistan, and al-Qaeda is, according to President Obama, “a shadow of its former self.” There are great possibilities for the United States in Asia, but the federal government must now focus on minimizing damage rather than leveraging new opportunities.

Opportunities rarely wait long. The United States has looked forward and placed a rapidly growing Asia at the top of its agenda. Sequestration sets the gains from this foresight aside. Whether it’s for a day, a month, a year, or ten years, Asia won’t wait for the United States to reinvest and reengage.

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soundoff (19 Responses)
  1. Paul

    It is sad to see the humanitarian aid is being reduced by $200 million. Now, the congress needs to spend wisely and make sure that none of the aid dollars ever go to countries which are pretty much devoid of humanity. They need to stop aid to Islamic countries which shoot polio workers, kidnap aid workers like Weinstein, and behead journalists like Daniel Pearl.

    February 27, 2013 at 12:47 pm | Reply
    • Jim

      Let's hope that the funding for the drone program in Pakistan is not cut. Drones are reducing the number of Islamic terrorists in Pakistan, who are killing Shia, Ahmadi, Christian and other minorities. The amount of good the drones are doing to Pakistan outweighs all other forms of aid combined. Safety of innocent Pakistanis depends on these drones, which save their lives from murderous Islamist terrorists.

      February 27, 2013 at 5:06 pm | Reply
      • madmax

        What the hell are you talking about? It's all fun and games until someone else es drone flies over and target your house. That's not to say American drones don't target American civilians in a time of uprisings. If you support the drone attacks, then you mind as well support terrorism.

        February 27, 2013 at 5:32 pm |
      • madmax

        Perhaps you did not read about how Pakistani Sunni terrorists are systematically eliminating Shiites and Ahmadis. In January, Pakistani Sunni terrorists blew up 100 Shiites, then they killed about 100 Shiite Hazara again in February this year. That casualty number could have been a lot higher had drones not attacked the Pakistani terrorists. Scores of Pakistanis owe their life and safety to the drone program. The US is funding the drone program to improve safety of innocent people in Pakistan at no cost to Pakistanis. Let's hope that the funding for the humanitarian drone program is not cut because of sequestration politics.

        February 27, 2013 at 5:37 pm |
      • Marine5484

        @Jim. Your ignorance must be exceeded only by the pride you take in it! Any fool would know that at least 70% of the people slaughtered by those ungodly drones are innocent civilians and don't let the right-wing news media kid you otherwise! Those filthy creeps operating them need to be indicted and prosecuted for crimes against humanity at the I.C.C. and that's all there is to it!

        February 27, 2013 at 7:11 pm |
      • Jim

        Marine5484 – You are probably not aware of the ongoing genocide of Shiites and Ahamadi minorities in Pakistan by Sunni Muslim terrorists. The plight of Shiites and Ahmadis is truly heart wrenching in Pakistan. Drones are reducing the number of Pakistani Sunni Muslim terrorists. Drones are making more humanitarian impact on the quality of lives of minorities in Pakistan than their own government and military, who have tacitly approved the genocide by pure inaction. Calling me ignorant or other names is not helping the cause of the minorities in Pakistan being slaughtered. Please show some compassion.

        February 27, 2013 at 8:07 pm |
  2. Quigley

    Why do we need to "deepen our commitment" to Southeast Asia? Can't other countries like Russia, China, Vietnam and India take up the slack? I think they can and should. Besides, we need to quit using bribery to get other countries do do as we wish.

    February 27, 2013 at 1:31 pm | Reply
    • Marine5484

      Your idea is one of best ones since the invention of the wheel, Quigley. We need to turn these bases over to our so-called "allies" to be manned.

      February 27, 2013 at 7:14 pm | Reply
      • Paul

        @ Quigley and Marine5484 – You two are on to something important. Pakistan is running numerous terrorist training camps and harbors terrorists like UBL. Pakistan is in bed with Chechen terrorists, Uyghur terrorists, and LeT terrorists. The countries terrorized by Pakistani trained terrorists such as Russia, China, India, France and UK would love to stop the Pakistani terror export. Pakistan is useful for its supply routes now but will no longer be needed after the troops and equipment pull out of Afghanistan. Let Russia do what it wants after that… It would be like a child’s play for Russia to straighten out Pakistanis once the US protection for Pakistan ends after the withdrawal from AfPak.

        February 27, 2013 at 9:16 pm |
  3. me

    Great article, although when it comes to the American economy I don't believe they'll let go of the hard worked for gains slip through their fingers. The economy is part and parcel of America's security, projects that are worth billions of dollars to the economy will not be stopped regardless of the infighting going on right now in American politics.

    February 27, 2013 at 2:28 pm | Reply
  4. Mr. John

    Out of all the contries on the planet, no one is beeter ally of usa than Pakistan.
    They takes bullets on their chests becas they ae our friends and not like other contries like india who spread terrorism in south asia. As we know, 99.5 % of usa aid to Pakistan goes to the poor and to build kindergarten schools and hospitals and old age homes and animal shelters, all good causes.
    Pakistan is fighting militants who hate americans in places like afghan and all over waziristan so that usa people is comfortable in their sitting rooms. We must double the aid package to Pakistan whose people loves usa.
    Mr. John

    February 27, 2013 at 2:33 pm | Reply
  5. JAL

    Set up a new wing at Gitmo for the naysaying CEO's that are stock-piling trillions of dollars while decent folks around the world live in despair.

    February 27, 2013 at 3:11 pm | Reply
    • JAL

      That being said, I would like to say thank you to all US federal employees for their hard work and dedication as civil servants. When tax revenue is squeezed they get blamed. Isnt that right fortune 500 CEO's?.

      February 27, 2013 at 3:38 pm | Reply
    • JAL

      Also, based on Bernake's statement today, these companies will get no cooperation from me until the unemployment rate is below 6.5%.

      February 27, 2013 at 9:41 pm | Reply
  6. karthick

    America must stop the aid to Pakistan .it uses the money to improve terror camps.

    February 28, 2013 at 3:33 am | Reply
  7. j. von hettlingen

    True, Asia is economically the world’s most vibrant region, so it's not looking for economic help from the US. On the contrary some countries in the region could pay for the services the US render. Soft power doesn't need to cost a fortune.

    February 28, 2013 at 9:54 am | Reply
    • Vic

      Only a few countries in Asia have vibrant and growing economies. There are many countries which are either unable or unwilling to make progress to improve themselves. Their priorities are completely different. One has to travel to experience the stark contrast between adjacent, neighboring countries. The difference in progress being made by different countries is so stark, you can figure it out within a few hours of being in a country. While in some Asian countries optimism and euphoria is apparent and contagious, there are countries in which fanaticism is so ubiquitous that you have to worry about basic things such as your own safety.

      February 28, 2013 at 11:02 am | Reply
  8. Kerry

    No Asia! Asia is not beneficial partner in any US growth strategy. We need to rely on our NATO and EU partners – and not Asia.

    February 28, 2013 at 11:35 am | Reply

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