The United States needs to place higher priority on its economic, political, and security relationships with the Asia-Pacific region. Although the "pivot" to the region was an initiative of President Barack Obama, the policy refocused emphasis on Asia begun in the 1990s when, after the Cold War, the United States sought to become the indispensable "balance wheel" in the Western Pacific. The events of September 11, 2001 temporarily diverted that focus to the Middle East, but with the winding down of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, Washington has re-engaged with Asia -- albeit in a much changed strategic environment.
Economically, the Asia-Pacific region is an emerging leader in global trade, economic growth, manufacturing, and foreign investment. Together, China, Hong Kong, Japan, and Taiwan hold nearly 30% of total outstanding U.S. federal debt. In recent years, the region has pursued economic integration through several Free Trade Areas (FTA) and multilateral arrangements centered around the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) forum and various Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) models, including -- by 2015 -- the establishment of an ASEAN Economic Community. Some regional initiatives have excluded the United States, prompting Washington to promote its own Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) FTA. The Obama pivot is intended to reinforce the central role of the United States in the economic dynamo of the Asia-Pacific region, an especially important policy as Washington seeks to reinvigorate its domestic economy and trade. Unless the U.S. actively pursues such a role, the Asia-Pacific region (including India) has sufficient confidence and capacity to "go its own way" in terms of economic policy and regional alignments.
Politically, and a reflection of economic strength, several Asia-Pacific nations and the region as a whole are emerging centers of global political power. China and India, especially, have growing political clout, with Japan, Korea, and several of the ASEAN states becoming politically powerful on both a regional and global level. The Pacific is no longer an "American lake," other than perhaps in a strictly naval sense, so the United States must more intensely engage bilaterally and multilaterally with regional governments. If the U.S. does not actively seek to play a leadership role, other regional powers will seek to influence the course of events without special regard to American interests. At minimum, most Asia-Pacific countries want the United States fully engaged so it can play a "balancing" role in regional affairs to ensure that China or other powers do not become too assertive of territorial and other claims.
In terms of security, the principal driver for the U.S. pivot is the increased military capability of China and the strong assertion of its national security interests in the Western Pacific, Southeast Asia, and southern Asia. Amplifying U.S. concerns over a potential Chinese threat to American regional interests is the fact that China is governed by a communist dictatorship which -- while evolving politically -- remains steadfast in its repression of human rights and political competition. The rise of China as a rival power in the Western Pacific would naturally evoke concern in Washington. That China's current ideology runs counter to so many tenets of democracy, including checks and balances on aggressive security policies, makes Chinese competition with the U.S. in Asia worrisome to a great many Americans. When these factors are combined with Chinese resentment over Western mistreatment in the past and a powerful sense of Chinese nationalism, all the elements necessary for an eventual confrontation between two superpowers are in place. Only a trigger mechanism is needed, and Taiwan and the South China Sea provide ample opportunity for a conflict to occur.
April 28, 2012