Talk of the United States taking a renewed interest in Asia was plentiful at the time Barack Obama was elected. However, detailed discussion of how the United States might better engage the nations of the Pacific was largely deferred. With the financial panic on Wall Street elevating concerns about economic growth to the top of the political agenda, and discussion of foreign policy dominated by the United States’ ongoing roles in Iraq and Afghanistan, there seemed little space for discussing the U.S. role in Asia.
But that has all changed in recent months, with the launch of economic, diplomatic, and security initiatives that demonstrate a comprehensive reorientation towards East Asia. For a start, a major effort to develop trade ties has taken strides in the form of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, an agreement that will give U.S. companies greater access to a host of Asian economies. The United States has also sought to engage countries with which it hasn’t traditionally enjoyed strong relations, including a major thaw in ties with Vietnam, and President Obama’s decision to dispatch Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to Burma this week. And, on the security front, the United States has unveiled its intention to base marines in Darwin, Australia, underscoring the renewed military commitment to the region.
Such developments are not just the product of an administration in Washington that’s eager to move beyond the crises of the last decade. They are also indicative of an Asian region more willing to accommodate an American presence. This is partly the consequence of the new president, whose moderate tone and time spent growing up in Indonesia has helped make him a more effective messenger for his country than his predecessor. But it is also the product of a greater desire for American engagement within the region itself. Japan, South Korea, and the countries of Southeast Asia increasingly regard the United States as a potential counterweight to Chinese assertiveness, even if they are unwilling to make this point explicitly.
It’s right and proper that the United States should seek to strengthen its role in East Asia, not least because the United States has been a Pacific power for as long as it has been an Atlantic one. However, while the United States’ “pivot” is welcomed by much of Asia, it is causing concern to the nations of Western Europe. Having relied upon the United States for security and economic growth since the latter half of the 20th century, the nations of the EU will soon find that they are no longer the focal point of American attention. This was already true in part due to the end of the Cold War, and the defeat of Communism. Yet it will become ever more so as the United States looks further East. In order to prepare for this shift in geopolitics, European countries must initiate a carefully calibrated response of their own.