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2011: A Return to Roots? Lessons From This Year's US Engagement in Asia




U.S. President Barack Obama (2nd R) applauds with Southeast Asian leaders, Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono (L), Philippines President Benigno Aquino (2nd L) and Brunei Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah (R), during a group photo session for the leaders of the East Asia Summit in Nusa Dua on Indonesia's resort island of Bali on November 19, 2011 following the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Summit. (Romeo Gacad/AFP/Getty Images)

U.S. President Barack Obama (2nd R) applauds with Southeast Asian leaders, Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono (L), Philippines President Benigno Aquino (2nd L) and Brunei Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah (R), during a group photo session for the leaders of the East Asia Summit in Nusa Dua on Indonesia's resort island of Bali on November 19, 2011 following the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Summit. (Romeo Gacad/AFP/Getty Images)

This is part of a series of year-end posts on Asia Blog written by Asia Society experts and Associate Fellows looking back on noteworthy events in 2011. You can read the entire series here.

Over the past year, the Obama administration has redoubled its engagement in Asia, often through multilateral channels. The United States joined the East Asia Summit and hosted the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) forum. Yet in substance, the most important trend in U.S. strategy has been a return to roots, as the United States re-embraces the twin pillars of postwar American Asia policy — free trade and a network of strong bilateral security pacts.

Historically, those two elements have been part of an implicit grand bargain whereby Pacific Rim states have acquiesced in U.S. strategic primacy in exchange for access to American markets. Over the last decade, the economic side of that bargain has come under strain as gaping twin deficits and a painful recession sapped America's appetite for free trade. After a 2002 free trade agreement (FTA) with Singapore, other U.S. efforts floundered. The largest deal under discussion — the Korea-U.S. deal — was long in doubt due to objections from powerful protected industries in both states. Its November ratification marks a possible watershed.

In the same month, Japan voiced interest in joining the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), a "mini-lateral" trade grouping including the United States and eight much smaller economies on both sides of the Pacific. Japan's involvement would catapult the TPP to major global significance. A diplomatic thaw with Myanmar could also remove a longstanding roadblock to U.S. free trade talks with ASEAN. China, sensing a form of economic encirclement, has quickly reinvigorated its free trade campaign, beginning with calls to Korea and Japan.

The U.S. alliance network is also resurgent after a decade that drew American attention toward the Middle East. In November, President Obama announced that the United States would dispatch 2,500 Marines to northern Australia to strengthen the alliance. In September, the U.S. government approved a deal worth nearly $6 billion to upgrade Taiwan's aging fleet of F-16 fighter aircraft. On December 15, Japan announced a plan to purchase F-35 aircrafts.

The Japanese and South Korean governments have taken steps to shore up their alliances amid discussions over wartime operation control and base relocation in Okinawa, respectively. Philippine President Noynoy Aquino has called for reinvigoration of the Philippine-U.S. alliance, and U.S. forces have engaged in modest cooperation with Vietnam as those Southeast Asian states face off against China in the Paracel and Spratly Islands. The Obama administration has denied that the alliance buildup is aimed at China. China's leaders are far from convinced.

These trends suggest a few key things to look for in 2012. First, look for a vigorous return to FTA competition in Asia. Second, expect China's armed forces to seek to flex their growing muscles at neighbors in an effort to deter those states from allying with America. Expect those efforts to fail for maritime Asian states with the option of seeking protection from the U.S. Seventh Fleet. Both of these economic and military trends point toward a buildup of Sino-American tension — ironically, something most Asian officials wish to avoid.

2012 will be a pivotal year in testing the commitment in both Washington and Beijing to keep the diplomatic chess match from spiraling toward a more dangerous level of strategic competition.

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