The ‘Lost Decade’ of the US Pivot to Asia 

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The ‘Lost Decade’ of the US Pivot to Asia 

Insights from Richard Fontaine.

The ‘Lost Decade’ of the US Pivot to Asia 
Credit: Depositphotos

The Diplomat author Mercy Kuo regularly engages subject-matter experts, policy practitioners, and strategic thinkers across the globe for their diverse insights into U.S. Asia policy.  This conversation with Richard Fontaine – CEO of the Center for a New American Security in Washington, D.C. and co-author, with Robert Blackwill, of “Lost Decade: The U.S. Pivot to Asia and the Rise of Chinese Power” (2024) – is the 406th in “The Trans-Pacific View Insight Series.”  

Identify the key factors that led to the failure of the U.S. “Pivot to Asia” policy.

In “Lost Decade,” we looked at a perplexing question. The pivot to Asia, first articulated in 2011, won support from political leaders and policymakers, Republicans and Democrats, and successive administrations. So why did it not produce more results? There are several reasons.

For too long, Washington underestimated the China challenge, believing that a combination of incentives and discouragements would induce Beijing to support rather than undermine the international order. That sapped some of the urgency necessary for a major pivot. In addition, crises emerged in other places – from wars in the Middle East to Russia’s invasions of Ukraine. And by declaring an Asia-first foreign policy, the Obama administration attempted a grand strategic shift in the absence of cataclysmic events that might force a reassessment. In the history of American foreign policy, it has generally required such an upheaval – or the emergence of a major new threat, like the Soviet Union or international terrorism – to turn the great ship of state. 

The final reason why the United States did not pivot to Asia, and why it did not adequately respond to the rise of Chinese power, is, however, the simplest: It was more than successive administrations could manage. Moving military assets away from Europe and the Middle East, overcoming domestic opposition to approve the Trans-Pacific Partnership, divesting legacy weapons systems in favor of arms tailored for a China contingency, sustaining intense diplomacy in the Indo-Pacific – each step proved too hard, in the event, to get done. 

Explain the period from 2011 to 2021 as a “lost decade” in U.S. foreign policy. 

The period from 2011, when the pivot to Asia was first articulated, until roughly 2021, when the Biden administration began a partial and belated shift of focus to Asia, represents a decade of lost opportunity. Had the United States pivoted to Asia as intended, it would be better able to deter war with China today. It would have deeper trade relationships in the region, and countries there would be less dependent on China and less susceptible to Beijing’s economic coercion. America’s diplomatic interactions with key countries would be stronger, and the region would have less reason to hedge against U.S. unreliability. 

Had the United States taken full advantage of this decade, its chances of prevailing in a long-term competition with China would be greater. Pivoting to Asia would not have eliminated the Chinese challenge, but it would have made it easier for the United States to manage. Instead, Beijing, not Washington, made the greatest strides in this period.

Analyze how China benefited from this lost decade. 

China aims to replace the United States as the most important and influential nation in the Indo-Pacific, and to dominate that region. Across the lost decade, China made increases in virtually every area. Where Washington suffered a shrinking defense budget and was spread thin by conflicts in the Middle East and Europe, Beijing boosted its defense spending, shipbuilding, missile inventory, and defense technology. As the United States withdrew from or ceased pursuing trade pacts, Beijing signed new free trade agreements in Asia and across the world. Where U.S. diplomatic bandwidth was often absorbed by issues in the Middle East and Europe, China increased its engagement in the Indo-Pacific and Global South. As a result, after a decade in which the United States tried to firm up its position in Asia, China was stronger and more influential in that region than when the decade began.

How can U.S. leadership maintain global order amid wars in Europe and the Middle East with the specter of conflict looming in the Taiwan Strait?   

The overarching goal of U.S. foreign policy should be to preserve the core pillars of the international order, even as specific rules and institutions change and adapt. That order is quite obviously under significant pressure in multiple regions, including Europe and the Middle East. Even so, China’s rise, and its ambition to construct an Asian sphere of influence and an order that reflects its illiberal values, represent the chief U.S. foreign policy challenge. 

The United States is not, however, a regional power, focused on Asia alone, nor should it seek to become one. Washington retains key interests and commitments in other regions as well. A strategic shift to the Indo-Pacific is necessary even as the U.S. remains active elsewhere. We enumerate in the book some of the specific resource and other tradeoffs such a balance requires. In general, though a U.S. approach to China that seeks only a pivot to Asia is incomplete, a grand strategy that does not pivot to Asia will certainly fail. 

Assess what the next decade of U.S. foreign policy and global leadership should look like after the U.S. presidential election this November.  

It is useful to start with some overarching strategic principles. First, Washington should articulate a positive vision its own ambitions. The United States is not merely competing against China but working toward the preservation and extension of core international values that serve many other nations well. 

Second, it should endorse America’s global role, in addition to devoting new diplomatic, economic, and military resources to Asia. America should tilt toward the Indo-Pacific, but not so far that it topples over. 

Third, the United States must calculate difficult, inevitable tradeoffs amid great power competition. This means developing a subtle prioritization of regions and issues, and a policy process that considers the relative importance of multiple crises and opportunities rather than evaluating each on its own. 

Finally, Washington must pursue domestic unity. Competition with China should bring U.S. political leaders together rather than driving them apart. That’s the hardest of the four, and the most important.

In “Lost Decade,” we enumerate concrete ways to fulfill these principles. In (very) short, the United States should begin by: 

  1. Continuing to strengthen U.S. alliances in the Indo-Pacific. 
  2. Joining CPTPP and de-risking economic ties with China.
  3. Substantially increasing the U.S. defense budget and boosting U.S. military assets and power projection in Asia.
  4. Shifting significant military resources from the Middle East to Asia.
  5. Shifting substantial U.S. air and naval forces from Europe to the Indo-Pacific.
  6. Making European allies central in Washington’s China strategy.
  7. Pursuing issue-based coalitions with allies and partners.
  8. Intensifying bilateral diplomacy with China.
  9. Supporting the forces of democracy and liberalism.