How U.S. Must Adapt in Asia
Image Credit: White House

How U.S. Must Adapt in Asia


A power transition, caused mainly by the rise of China, is going on in East Asia. China has become the No. 1 trading partner of almost every country in the region, while its military power continues to grow. Asymmetrical interdependency between China and other regional states will continue to grow.

At the same time, East Asia has witnessed architectural and structural changes over the years. Multilateral organizations and institutions such as the East Asian Summit (EAS), the China-Japan-Korea Summit, the ASEAN-Plus-Three, and the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) have become increasingly active, and are expected to expand their respective roles. And increasing dynamism for integration and cooperation among the countries in the region has become highly visible and multidimensional. On the other hand, despite efforts to modernize the alliance system, U.S. bilateral alliances have remained relatively static.

Nationalistic sentiment, territorial disputes, and history issues have recently become more contentious among countries in the region, which impedes further integration and cooperation and could become the source of conflict. In some countries, democratization is taking place. Uncertainty over whether this transformation will be smooth is another source of potential instability. In a word, the current major characteristics of East Asia can best be summed up as “iAsia” – integration, innovation, investment, instability, and inequality.

Against this backdrop, the Obama administration has recently announced its policy toward the Asia-Pacific region, which emphasizes a “pivot” in U.S. foreign policy. This reflects the rediscovery of the importance of the trans-Pacific axis in the 21st century, from security to the economy. It seems that two words – engagement and enlargement – capture the basic direction of the Obama administration’s policy toward the Asia-Pacific region. This is quite similar to that of the Clinton administration of the mid-1990s.

The U.S. policy contains the following five elements: strengthening traditional alliances; strengthening partnerships with other regional countries; managing and developing a cooperative relationship with China; participation in and working with multilateral regional mechanisms; and developing and strengthening trade relations (KORUS FTA and TPP). How the Obama administration will implement its Asia policy remains to be seen, but a number of concerns should be taken into account in the implementation process.

The United States argues that it is an Asia-Pacific country. Unfortunately, such statements haven’t been backed up by concrete action. The U.S. has maintained almost the same level of engagement or presence throughout the post-Cold War period. Some argue that U.S. commitment to, and engagement in, the region remain rhetorical or unconvincing, especially in terms of economics. In turn, the credibility of U.S. policy toward the region has been questioned, prompting some countries to seek alternative foreign policies.

The United States has been relatively reactive toward changes in the region. It hasn’t paid sufficient (or due) attention to the unfolding or possible changes or dynamics in the region. Sometimes, issue-by-issue or selective engagement has marked U.S. policy toward the region. This has led some to question whether the United States has a clear vision for the Asia-Pacific region backed up by a comprehensive knowledge and profound understanding of regional dynamics and concerns.

The U.S. approach has been driven by traditional security concerns and concepts. Consequently, it has relied mainly on bilateral alliances (U.S.-ROK. U.S.-Japan, U.S.-Australia) and neglected other mechanisms and institutions. While the United States has often underscored the parallel or complementary development of bilateral and multilateral cooperation mechanisms, it has usually reverted to bilateral mechanisms since its primary concerns have been somewhat traditional. However, regional countries have other security concerns, and they may seek alternative mechanisms that can properly address emerging security issues.

In the face of China’s rising influence, the U.S. pivot toward East Asia will be welcomed by most East Asian states as a stabilizing influence. But the U.S. must tighten its relationship with the region in various dimensions and on a range of issues, not just through verbal commitments, but though concrete actions. It should try to build a “system of systems” for regional cooperation and integration and become a real resident power in the region.

Against this backdrop, China sees some of this as an effort to encircle it, and four of the five elements of U.S. policy toward the Asia-Pacific region could be considered encircling measures. Certainly, it’s not possible to ignore the possibility that U.S. policies might force its allies or partners to make a strategic choice between the United States and China, something that might invite friction between the U.S. and its allies/partners. The relationship between China and other regional powers is extremely complex and complicated, meaning regional countries can’t make such a choice without suffering side effects. U.S. understanding of this is necessary, but whether the United States is able to deepen and widen cooperation with China and strengthen its other four policy pillars is what will determine the success of U.S. policy toward East Asia.

The U.S. and its allies/partners haven’t discussed some of the fundamental issues, namely, the desirable regional architecture for the region. While they are talking about peace, stability, and prosperity, they have rarely thought about the conditions that will bring this about. In other words, a thorough assessment and forecasting of the future strategic environment of the region hasn’t been properly carried out. Without a common vision or efforts to introduce guiding principles for the attainment of this vision, it isn’t possible to overcome strategic distrust.

Ultimately, the United States needs to take into account the concerns of its allies and partners and to enhance its understanding of regional dynamics in East Asia. With that in mind, strategic dialogue with regional countries must be strengthened and expanded to cover broad areas of concern. And its active participation in and contribution to multilateral fora are necessary. Proper development of bi- and multilateral cooperation will help the U.S. to become the resident power in East Asia. 

Kang Choi is a professor and Director-General for American Studies at the Institute of Foreign Affairs and National Security, Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade. This is an edited version of an article published by Pacific Forum CSIS here.

June 6, 2012 at 20:02

Civilization is really an overstatement/word for china, as there’s nothing civilized about that country.

John Chan
May 31, 2012 at 14:10

@”John Chan” the impostor:
American is snakeoil salesman, they cheated North American natives out of their homeland, now they are cheating Chinese kidneys too, they are unscrupulous.

John Chan
May 31, 2012 at 14:08

@”John Chan” the impostor,
USA is the Al Capone of the world, setting up military bases all around in Asia uninvited to collect protection ransom to maintain their unsustainable life style.

John Chan
May 31, 2012 at 14:03

@”John Chan” the impostor,
American is snakeoil salesman, they cheated North American natives out of their homeland, now they are cheating Chinese kidneys too, they are unscrupulous.

Sin Lok
May 30, 2012 at 22:46

1.3 Billion population is I think China’s number one problem. Beijing needs to maintain an iron fist to keep this people in check if not they will start killing each other.If the Chinese Economy tanks man there would be a lot of dead bodies!

papa john
May 28, 2012 at 14:52

You are right on this, john chan.
yes, they are indeed ungrateful. We give them jobs so they can buy American products, have a car, house and wear western clothing. They don’t realize if we don’t give them jobs anymore, they might go back to the stone age.

John Chan
May 27, 2012 at 13:15

Asian nations are under attacked from Big Bully China. That’s why America came.

John Chan
May 27, 2012 at 13:10

Chinaman are willing to trade kidneys for an ipad. America brought you out of poverty, feed Chinaman. What are your hostile against America? You represent CCP very well.

May 26, 2012 at 04:07

Vec wrote: “@Act
5000 years of civilisation and not as a nation state as defined by the Westphalia doctrine.”

Oh, 5000 years!

Ok, thats nothing as Australia has a 40,000 year history of civilisation. So, oops, Aussie wins the civilisation stakes.

Therefore, Australia is the number one nation in the Asia Pacific region. (Don’t get a big head head Aussies)

Oh, but PNG easily has 5000 years of untramelled civilization, so heck that means China must bne number 6 on the list. Oh well, the years of being a civilization dont mean much stacked up globably.

Or will you now claim it only counts when China knew first?

May 26, 2012 at 03:25

5000 years of civilisation and not as a nation state as defined by the Westphalia doctrine.
Your hubris is delusional esp in the 21st century or r u still having a mindset of even 20 years ago.
Hope it is not still a Harry Potter era for Pax Americana.

MAD is the word(mutual assured destruction) or should it be “make love and die together in embrace” if there is a war with Pax americana getting the worse of it.

Whether Mark steyn is right or left wing the truth is the truth unless u r saying he is a liar to satisfy the domestic audience in a election year.Then read Nial Ferguson or Kagan or Jim Rogers ,etc and many more writers for a comprehensive answer
Humilation is not a word to use for a declining Pax America and self humilation is a more appropriate word.
Any war with China is “hara kiri” for Pax Americana.
“Not bringing history” because it tells the truth and the double standards and hypocrisy of the west.
There is no dislike or hatred of America at all.
It is its arrogance and concept of Exceptionalism and double standardwhich is all hubris and delusional for a declining power.
Pax americana is no difference from any other imperial powers throughout history.
under the guise of Western democracy at home and imperialism abroad which has exhaustred itself.
Needs life saving support now.
History will show who is the ostrich in the sand?

May 25, 2012 at 19:25

reading this essay about Asia pivot give me an impression like one goes to a most expensive restaurant in the world where the best main dish is also the most reasonable priced though highest priced too for its highest quality. with limited money available in pocket, instead of focus on the best main dish, the one orders several side dishes with fancy names. after the dinner, the one called a friend want to show off a little bit, when asked how about the the main dish there, the one answered no money left after have a taste of many side dishes. then the friend said, you pay expensive price and tips only for a few side dishes?

May 25, 2012 at 13:10


and so you resort to bullet points over polite discussion to defend your argument?

“China has been in existence for 5k years”
as a region? yes. As a nation? no, and it has been riven by strife and internal conflict throughout, including multiple iterations of conquest and invasion.

“Unless you mean native americans”
no, i don’t. i would recommend not bringing history that is not between our nations into the conversation in a vain attempt to insult me or belittle my argument.

“the truth is listed at [insert website here]”
no, it isn’t. do your research properly. Mark Steyn is a far-right republican demagogue who earns his money by scaring americans shitless, telling them that “the end is nigh” and blaming it all on anything and anyone that doesn’t support the notion of “state’s rights”, “small government” and the privatization of almost every single service the people of the United States currently enjoy; he believes that the health care plan set up by obama is an attempt at universal healthcare, etc, and his argument very swiftly turns into one for the destruction of anything remotely left-wing, citing anything that isn’t god-fearing or not-red-tape-creating (usually something that exists to protect the rights and business of Americans in the first place) as something to be reviled and destroyed post-haste. I’ve read his book, Vec. You would not enjoy the United States that he envisions, as it is one that would not hesitate to war with yours and one that would further humiliate your “people’s republic” in a defeat to mark the ages.

May 25, 2012 at 12:48

@ a canadian observer
Is that an admission or a suggestion?

May 25, 2012 at 12:46

R u delusional
China has been in existence for at least 5000 years befre Ameica.
China dying with America.Another hubris or R u thinking of the natives of America whose remnants r now confined to the reservations.
Sweet dreams.
As u soww so u shall reap.
Pax America is over.
Vietnam taught Pax America its fist lesson,Iraq second and Afghanistan the third lesson.
Hopefully Iran will not be the fourth lesson unless China is prepared to give a long term interest free loan to Pax americana.
Have no dislike for America except for its hubris of exceptionalism.

Hear below listed site for the truth

Inspector Fu
May 25, 2012 at 08:59

If Asian countries want a US military presence so badly, they can pay for it. It is tiresome for Americans to have to be the ones that pay to police for Asia.

May 24, 2012 at 19:52

Keep on dreaming.

Mike From Tampa
May 24, 2012 at 12:11

Why should we(US) pay for asian security so that asian nations can trade with each other ?

May 23, 2012 at 20:18


so focused are you on the potential joy of seeing the united states sink into historical oblivion that you fail to realize that much of the rest of the world will be dragged along with it, including your oh-so-precious PRC; the vast majority of the people within the PRC are not wealthy enough, nor do they have enough income, to sustain its economic growth; when the United States dies, the PRC will die along with it.

May 23, 2012 at 14:15

Power is pivoting towards China and U.S. is pivoting towards itself.
No money no talk.
Pax americana is slowly disintergrating.
Instead of adapting it is challenging its creditor with a last weak roar.

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