U.S. Foreign Policy in Asia since 9/11: Temporary Alliances or Permanent Changes?

By Thacker-Kumar, Leena; Campbell, Joel R. | International Social Science Review, Fall-Winter 2006 | Go to article overview

U.S. Foreign Policy in Asia since 9/11: Temporary Alliances or Permanent Changes?


Thacker-Kumar, Leena, Campbell, Joel R., International Social Science Review


Few readers would challenge us if we stated that in the past generation the center of gravity in global industry and trade has shifted from the United States and Western Europe to the Pacific Rim. Even so, except in times of crisis, the world's lone superpower pays Asia only sporadic attention. Has American foreign policy toward Asia changed significantly since 9/11? The authors of this study argue that despite a few key departures in recent years, U.S. policy toward Asia has changed and will change little in the near future. However, major power shifts on the Asian horizon, especially those centering on the rise of China, Japan's search for a role in Asia, and the nascent economic integration of the region, may force future U.S. policy makers to deal with changed Asian regional power relationships.

"On September 11, [2001] the world changed!" or so shouted CNN countless times every day for several months thereafter. The horrific terrorist attack, which took the lives of nearly 3,000 people at the World Trade Center in New York City, at the Pentagon in Arlington, Virginia, and in the United Flight 93 plane crash near Shanksville, Pennsylvania, was an event almost as shockingly unexpected in 2001 as was Pearl Harbor in 1941. As America began to adjust to the new reality of the "War on Terrorism," (1) observers started to discuss the true meaning of 9/11. Was it, as President George W. Bush suggested, an assault on American civilization? Could it have been a reaction to U.S. political and economic hegemony, especially as perceived by radical Muslim fundamentalists? Realists might have expected a major reaction to the "unipolar moment," in which America is temporarily the unchallenged and sole global superpower. Numerous scholars have questioned why American power has not yet been balanced, and their answers range from Kenneth Waltz's suggestion that other powers have already started to do so, to William C. Wohlforth's assertion that, given America's overwhelming power and distance from other powers, it is easier for potential rivals to cooperate (or put up) with the U.S. (2)

Could 9/11 have been anticipated years before it happened? The Asian connection is particularly important here, since there were several warnings of the possibility of a major attack from both international terrorism experts and from Philippine investigators of Southeast Asian terror groups connected with Osama bin Laden's al-Qaeda terrorist network. (3) Instead of a thorough examination of this question, U.S. foreign policy focused on the War on Terrorism to the exclusion of most other concerns. This manifested itself perhaps most clearly in Asia. In the immediate aftermath of 9/11, U.S. policy in that region consisted mainly of lining up allies to support its anti-terrorism policies. As the overall focus of the War on Terrorism shifted to the Iraq War beginning in 2003, U.S. policy toward Asia basically returned to pre-9/11 patterns. (4)

So, what is the essential American approach to Asia? As during the Cold War, Washington's Asia policy is based on bilateral ties with key allies, especially Japan, (5) and the forward deployment of U.S. military forces in Japan and South Korea (and, to a lesser extent, Australia). Throughout the Cold War era, America behaved as a status quo power in Asia, more interested in regional stability and economic growth than instituting major changes in the region. Even its most vigorous interventions, the Korean and Vietnam Wars, were fundamentally defensive in nature. To be sure, there were a number of departures in U.S. policy during the Clinton and current Bush administrations. The most important has been the shift from diplomacy to intervention, particularly in the Afghanistan and Iraq invasions, but those are outside East and Southeast Asia, and even (depending on how one defines the region) South Asia. America has improved its relations with the "front-line states" in the struggle against terrorism, mostly in South and Southeast Asia.

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