Far Eastern Promises

Why Washington Should Focus on Asia

Change your perspective: A worker cleans the windows of a building in Beijing's central business district, April 4, 2007. Reinhard Krause / Courtesy Reuters

The United States is in the early stages of a substantial national project: reorienting its foreign policy to commit greater attention and resources to the Asia-Pacific region. This reformulation of U.S. priorities has emerged during a period of much-needed strategic reassessment, after more than a decade of intense engagement with South Asia and the Middle East. It is premised on the idea that the history of the twenty-first century will be written largely in the Asia-Pacific, a region that welcomes U.S. leadership and rewards U.S. engagement with a positive return on political, economic, and military investments.

As a result, the Obama administration is orchestrating a comprehensive set of diplomatic, economic, and security initiatives now known as the “pivot,” or “rebalancing,” to Asia. The policy builds on more than a century of U.S. involvement in the region, including important steps taken by the Clinton and George W. Bush administrations; as President Barack Obama has rightly noted, the United States is in reality and rhetoric already a “Pacific power.” But the rebalancing does represent a significant elevation of Asia’s place in U.S. foreign policy.

Questions about the purpose and scope of the new approach emerged as soon as Secretary of State Hillary Clinton offered what remains the clearest articulation of the strategy, and first used the term “pivot” to describe it, in a 2011 article in Foreign Policy. Almost three years later, the Obama administration still confronts the persistent challenge of explaining the concept and delivering on its promise. But despite the intense scrutiny and short-term setbacks faced by the policy, there is little doubt that a major shift is well under way. And whether Washington wants it to or not, Asia will command more attention and resources from the United States, thanks to the region’s growing prosperity and influence -- and the enormous challenges the region poses. The question, then, is not whether the United States will focus more on Asia but whether it can do

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