Far Eastern Promises: Why Washington Should Focus on Asia

Article excerpt

The United States is in the early stages of a substantial national project: reorienting its foreign policy to commit greater attention and resources to the Asia-Pacific region. This refor- mulation of U.S. priorities has emerged during a period of much-needed strategic reassessment, after more than a decade of intense engagement with South Asia and the Middle East. It is premised on the idea that the history of the twenty-first century will be written largely in the Asia-Pacific, a region that welcomes U.S. leadership and rewards U.S. engagement with a positive return on political, economic, and military investments.

As a result, the Obama administration is orchestrating a comprehen- sive set of diplomatic, economic, and security initiatives now known as the "pivot," or "rebalancing," to Asia. The policy builds on more than a century of U.S. involvement in the region, including important steps taken by the Clinton and George W. Bush administrations; as President Barack Obama has rightly noted, the United States is in reality and rhetoric already a "Pacific power." But the rebalancing does represent a significant elevation of Asia's place in U.S. foreign policy.

Questions about the purpose and scope of the new approach emerged as soon as Secretary of State Hillary Clinton offered what remains the clearest articulation of the strategy, and first used the term "pivot" to describe it, in a 2011 article in Foreign Policy. Almost three years later, the Obama administration still confronts the persistent challenge of explaining the concept and delivering on its promise. But despite the intense scrutiny and short-term setbacks faced by the policy, there is little doubt that a major shift is well under way. And whether Washington wants it to or not, Asia will command more attention and resources from the United States, thanks to the region's prosperity and influence-and the enormous challenges the region poses. The question, then, is not whether the United States will focus more on Asia but whether it can do so with the necessary resolve, resources, and wisdom.

EASTBOUND AND DOWN

The Asia-Pacific region exerts an inescapable gravitational pull. It is home to more than half of the world's population and contains the largest democracy in the world (India), the second- and third-largest economies (China and Japan), the most populous Muslim-majority nation (Indonesia), and seven of the ten largest armies. The Asian Development Bank has predicted that before the middle of this cen- tury, the region will account for half of the world's economic output and include four of the world's ten largest economies (China, India, Indonesia, and Japan).

But it is the trajectory of Asia's evolution, not just its dizzying scale, that makes the region so consequential. According to Freedom House, during the last five years, the Asia-Pacific has been the only region in the world to record steady improvements in political rights and civil liberties. And despite questions about the ability of emerging markets to sustain rapid economic growth, Asian nations still represent some of the most promising opportunities in an otherwise sluggish and uncertain global economy. At the same time, Asia struggles with sources of chronic instability, owing to the highly provocative actions of North Korea, the growth of defense budgets throughout the region, vexing maritime disputes that roil relations in the East China and South China seas, and nontraditional security threats such as natural disasters, human trafficking, and the drug trade.

The United States has an irrefutable interest in the course Asia will take in the coming years. The region is the leading destination for U.S. exports, outpacing Europe by more than 50 percent, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Both U.S. direct investment in Asia and Asian direct investment in the United States have roughly doubled in the past decade, with China, India, Singapore, and South Korea accounting for four of the ten fastest-growing sources of foreign direct investment in the United States, according to the U. …