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A nervous Asia welcomes U.S. role

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STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Fareed Zakaria: The demand for U.S. power and diplomacy has grown quite strikingly in Asia
  • Zakaria: Asian countries are nervous of China's boldness and want the U.S. to balance
  • He says the U.S. needs amity with China, but also needs other alliances in Asia
  • The payoff is a peaceful, prosperous Asia where the U.S. is the central broker, he says

Editor's note: Fareed Zakaria is an author and foreign affairs analyst who hosts "Fareed Zakaria GPS" on CNN U.S. on Sundays at 10 a.m. and 1 p.m. ET and CNN International at 2 p.m. and 10 p.m. Central European Time/ 5 p.m. Abu Dhabi/ 9 p.m. Hong Kong.

New York (CNN) -- President Obama's trip to Asia comes at a time when major powers in the region are welcoming a greater U.S. role to counter China's increasingly assertive stance, says CNN analyst Fareed Zakaria.

Obama flew to South Korea Wednesday for the G-20 economic summit meeting, after stops in India and Indonesia.

Zakaria says recent military and economic moves by China are making nations such as Japan, India and South Korea nervous about the potential for Chinese dominance in the region.

"I think that for all of these countries the United States becomes the most important friend to have, the most important ally to have, because it is not threatening, because it is so far away and frankly does not have imperial designs in Asia. But it is powerful enough to balance China, to make China somewhat cautious about being overly aggressive. So even Lee Kuan Yew in Singapore has said words to the effect [of] 'Look, it's very simple, we need a balance to China and nobody in Asia can do it and so that's why you need the United States as a key Pacific power.' "

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  • Fareed Zakaria
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The author and host of CNN's "Fareed Zakaria GPS" spoke to CNN on Tuesday. Here is an edited transcript:

CNN: What's at stake for the president and the United States in his trip to Asia?

Fareed Zakaria: Well, his trip is turning out to be a very important one. ... It has taken on a kind of heightened importance because of something very remarkable that has happened in Asia over the last six months.

China's behavior has triggered a set of very far-reaching reflections among other Asian powers about what kind of Asia they want to live in. Over the last six months you have seen China be pretty tough on issues of currency, which has not been that much of a problem for other Asian countries, but then they saw this new assertiveness in China on other issues as well -- and not just relating to the United States.

CNN: What prompted the concern about China?

Zakaria: The signal event was probably the clash over the Senkaku Islands that took place between China and Japan. You remember this is when a Chinese captain of a fishing trawler wanders into waters that are contested between China and Japan. The Japanese coast guard arrests them, the Chinese demand that he be released and then demand that Japan issue a formal apology.

This whole episode ended up spiraling out of control, the Chinese blocked shipments of rare earth minerals to Japan, canceled a head of government meeting between the Prime Minister of Japan and the Premier of China. ...

I've spent a lot of time in Asia over the past two months. I'm in Singapore, I've been in South Korea, I've been in India. What was interesting to me is that other Asian countries are now watching this behavior very carefully and it has made them very nervous.

They watched the Chinese really push their weight around on the Senkaku Islands issue, and from South Korea to to India to Japan, other Asian countries got nervous.

CNN: What does that mean for the United States?

Zakaria: Well, that's the really interesting thing. In all these Asian countries, what I noticed was that the interest in America and American political power has grown quite dramatically. The demand for American power and diplomacy has grown quite strikingly.

So I was in South Korea, I was talking to left-wing politicians. Left-wing politicians in South Korea are often quite anti-American -- the legacy of the fact that we supported a right-wing dictatorship there for many decades; and the left wing in South Korean politics were formed in opposition to that dictatorship and to the U.S. support for it.

But now even left-wing politicians in South Korea are becoming very determined that they find a way to remain allied to the United States. No talk about sending American troops back, no talk about Yankees goes home. The same pattern, but in a much more dramatic way, has been unfolding in Japan where at the start of this year, the big issue in Japanese politics was whether or not the Americans would be asked to leave Okinawa.

At this point, what has happened in Japanese foreign policy has been a complete abandonment of that idea and a real soul-searching about what they will do to deal with an increasingly assertive China.

India has always been nervous about China and some parts of the Indian elites have viewed the United States as a natural ally in the context of ensuring that China does not dominate them.

CNN: Is it a role that the United States can really afford to play at this moment, given all the other concerns the nation has to deal with?

Zakaria: Well frankly, this is the central arena of the world right now, this is the place where the 21st century is going to be shaped.

What we have to do is to make sure that American foreign policy can play this role in a constructive way and we may need to de-emphasize other parts of the world where frankly the threats are not as great -- who is going to invade Germany now? You know, why do we need our tens of thousands of troops in Europe, protecting Europe from a Soviet invasion when the Soviet Union has collapsed?

There are hundreds of places where American soldiers are, where frankly it's not entirely clear that we have the interest to warrant them, but if America is not a Pacific power in the 21st century then it will not be the superpower. It will not be a superpower in the 21st century because this is where the action is.

CNN: That's primarily for economic reasons?

Zakaria: The Western world is now growing at best at 1-2 percent a year, China is growing at 9 percent a year and a near 7 percent in Indonesia and 5 percent South Korea. Already the emerging markets make up 40 percent of global GDP and they will soon make up more than half of global GDP and continue to grow at around three times the pace that the western world is. The power shift is real and accelerating and that of course means that politics often follows economics and so this becomes the central geopolitical cockpit of the world.

CNN: So what does that suggest in terms of specific policies?

Zakaria: Well, the Obama administration has been quite careful and I would say skillful in handling this situation. China is close to becoming the second most important country in the world, if it is not already. So, relations with China have to be productive, have to be cooperative. The global economy is too interdependent, we need them, they need us, so you don't want some kind of outright confrontation with China at all.

If you just think about it, the United States benefits from having this strong China which is rich enough to buy our debt, rich enough to buy our products, rich enough to provide capital for our companies when we need that, and China needs the United States to be strong to be able to buy its products.

There really is interdependence in this relationship, so we have to have a friendly cooperative relationship with China. On the other hand it is important that Asia not turn into a place where one great power dominates, that is, that it becomes a Chinese backyard. None of the Asian countries want that, so we have to build our relations and build our alliances with traditional allies like Japan, Australia, Indonesia, but also develop new relationships such as the one with India.

It is a real balancing act, we cannot afford to create an impression that we are containing China -- that would not be good for the world, that would not be good for the United States. At the same time, you do want to assure other Asian countries that the United States will be there to provide geopolitical balance.

CNN: Is the currency controversy that's arisen over the Fed's plan to buy $600 billion in Treasury bonds to stimulate the American economy endangering any of this?

Zakaria: Not really. The Chinese have been pushing back pretty strongly, but it's fair to point out that the Germans have also been pushing back pretty strongly. Basically countries that export a lot don't like the policy, countries that are not as export dependent will tend to be a little bit less exercised about it. Asian countries export a lot, so on that particular issue they are closer to the Chinese position, though interestingly they feel they have publicly backed China.

I think that people understand that this is a case where economic interests of countries diverge and the United States has interests which are to try to boost its own exports ... but most importantly to try and provide some liquidity to the American economy to grow. I don't see this as endangering this broader strategic process that is taking place.

CNN: On the domestic front, it doesn't seem like this strategy that you are talking about for the United States has generated controversy.

Zakaria: No, I can't see why this would be a partisan issue though, God knows nowadays everything becomes a partisan issue. I think that in many ways this is a continuation of a strategy that the Bush administration laid out, which is to engage China fully, but yet also to strengthen alliances with other Asian countries.

The danger is really twofold. One, the one you alluded to: We are so overcommitted in so many other parts of the world that we will lose the ability to focus -- we have 100,000 troops in Afghanistan, we have 50,000 troops in Iraq, we have troops in Europe. If you were to look at the number of places America has significant troops around the world, it feels like an empire stretched very thin. I would much prefer if we could scale back many of those commitments, but shore up our political strategy in Asia.

The second is that the economy is in such trouble in the United States that it might make it very difficult for the president to devote the kind of time, energy, and focus on foreign policy, and particularly on a kind of long-range foreign policy issue like this.

Crises have to be dealt with. This is not a crisis, this is a strategy that has to be pursued. It is very easy to see that in the short-termism of American politics that the domestic needs and short term needs will overwhelm the president and he won't be able to do much of any significance in this direction.

This is one of those issues that is really about laying the groundwork, paying attention -- which means there has to be just a great deal of ongoing time, energy and attention devoted to it.

CNN: And what's the payoff for the United States ultimately?

Zakaria: The payoff is an Asia that is peaceful, prosperous, and in which the United States has played the role of the central broker, which means that it has very strong and cooperative relations with all of Asia's major countries, which is a huge win in terms of global stability and global prosperity.

And there's a specific benefit to the United States because this is where the action is, this is where the economy of the 21st century is going to be shaped. The country, our companies, our people need to be able to be fully engaged in every one of these countries in Asia.