New Leaders Forum

How U.S. Must Adapt in Asia

If the U.S. wants to be the resident Pacific power then it needs to show greater commitment than it has done.

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.

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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.