Change your perspective: A worker cleans the windows of a building in Beijing's central business district, April 4, 2007.
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 so with the necessary resolve, resources, and wisdom.


The Asia-Pacific region exerts an inescapable gravitational pull. It is home to more than half of the world’s population and contains the largest democracy in the world (India), the second- and third-largest economies (China and Japan), the most populous Muslim-majority nation (Indonesia), and seven of the ten largest armies. The Asian Development Bank has predicted that before the middle of this century, the region will account for half of the world’s economic output and include four of the world’s ten largest economies (China, India, Indonesia, and Japan).

But it is the trajectory of Asia’s evolution, not just its dizzying scale, that makes the region so consequential. According to Freedom House, during the last five years, the Asia-Pacific has been the only region in the world to record steady improvements in political rights and civil liberties. And despite questions about the ability of emerging markets to sustain rapid economic growth, Asian nations still represent some of the most promising opportunities in an otherwise sluggish and uncertain global economy. At the same time, Asia struggles with sources of chronic instability, owing to the highly provocative actions of North Korea, the growth of defense budgets throughout the region, vexing maritime disputes that roil relations in the East China and South China seas, and nontraditional security threats such as natural disasters, human trafficking, and the drug trade.

The United States has an irrefutable interest in the course Asia will take in the coming years. The region is the leading destination for U.S. exports, outpacing Europe by more than 50 percent, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Both U.S. direct investment in Asia and Asian direct investment in the United States have roughly doubled in the past decade, with China, India, Singapore, and South Korea accounting for four of the ten fastest-growing sources of foreign direct investment in the United States, according to the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis. The United States also has five defense treaty allies in the region (Australia, Japan, the Philippines, South Korea, and Thailand), as well as strategically important partnerships with Brunei, India, Indonesia, Malaysia, New Zealand, Singapore, and Taiwan and evolving ties with Myanmar (also known as Burma). Major U.S. military bases in Japan and South Korea are central to Washington’s ability to project power in Asia and beyond.

U.S. military alliances have undergirded the region’s security for decades, and one of the main purposes of the pivot is to deepen such ties. In recent years, Washington has encouraged its partners in Asia to prevent conflicts between major powers, keep sea-lanes open, combat extremism, and address nontraditional security threats. Japan and South Korea are poised to take increasingly prominent roles in joint operations with the United States, and U.S. forces are working with Australia to develop its amphibious capabilities and with the Philippines to boost its capacity to police its own shores. The net result has been more powerful alliances and a more secure region.

None of this suggests an effort to encircle or weaken China. To the contrary, developing a more robust and productive relationship with Beijing represents a principal goal of the rebalancing strategy. Far from seeking to contain China, the United States has in the last several years sought to build a more mature bilateral relationship through unprecedented, frequent top-level meetings across issues and throughout the countries’ respective bureaucracies. Even military-to-military relations are back on track, at times actually taxing the Pentagon’s ability to keep up with Beijing’s proposed levels of activity.


The rebalancing strategy also calls for a substantial increase in U.S. engagement with the multilateral institutions of the Asia-Pacific region. Under the Obama administration, the United States has gained membership in the East Asia Summit, the region’s premier annual gathering of heads of state; signed the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation in Southeast Asia, which signals enhanced U.S. commitment to the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN); and placed a permanent ambassador to ASEAN in Jakarta. Although these overlapping institutions can be frustrating, given their slow pace and requirements for consensus, they promote regional cooperation and help build a system of rules and mechanisms to address complex transnational challenges. In June 2013, for example, ASEAN hosted its first-ever humanitarian assistance and disaster relief exercise, which included more than 3,000 personnel from 18 nations.

Meanwhile, the United States is responding to the new reality that the Asia-Pacific region increasingly drives global economic growth. The Obama administration has advanced U.S. economic interests by bringing the U.S.-Korea Free Trade Agreement into force in 2012 and pushing hard to complete negotiations on the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a massive free-trade agreement among a dozen countries. A number of the countries participating in the TPP talks are vibrant markets in Southeast Asia, such as Malaysia and Singapore, which reflects the growing geopolitical importance of that subregion. Indeed, the U.S. pivot to Asia has been accompanied by a pivot within Asia. Washington is balancing its historical emphasis on the countries of Northeast Asia with new attention to countries in Southeast Asia, such as Indonesia, the Philippines, and Vietnam, seeking to augment two-way trade and investment with some of the world’s most vibrant economies. In 2010, Washington and Jakarta established a “comprehensive partnership” to deepen cooperation across a wide range of issues, including health care, science, technology, and entrepreneurship.

A similar desire to realign U.S. priorities in the region helps explain the changes the Pentagon has made to its military posture there. Although U.S. military bases in Northeast Asia remain central to Washington’s ability to project power and fight wars, they are increasingly vulnerable to disabling missile attacks, and they lie relatively far from potential disasters and crises in the South China Sea and the Indian Ocean. Meanwhile, with countries in Southeast Asia expressing growing interest in receiving American military training and assistance with disaster response, the United States has diversified its military footprint in the region, stationing hundreds of U.S. marines in Darwin, Australia, and deploying a pair of Littoral Combat Ships to Singapore.

Those changes to the U.S. military’s posture have been criticized as either provocative or meaningless. Both charges are off the mark. These efforts hardly signal aggression; they contribute primarily to peacetime activities, such as responding to natural disasters, and not to U.S. war-fighting capabilities. And the seemingly modest number of marines and ships involved masks the significant benefits they offer to the militaries of U.S. partners, who gain unparalleled opportunities for joint exercises and training with U.S. forces.

In pivoting to Asia, the Obama administration seeks not only to advance U.S. economic and security interests but also to deepen cultural and people-to-people ties. The administration further hopes that the pivot will help the United States support human rights and democracy in the region. The new approach has already contributed to advances in Myanmar, where the government has taken remarkable steps, including the release of political prisoners, the implementation of long-overdue economic reforms, and the promotion of organizing rights and greater press freedom. Although more progress is necessary, particularly on the protection of the country’s ethnic minorities, Myanmar serves as a powerful example of a once closed and brutal country taking transformational steps, and the United States has been an essential partner in this reform effort from the start.


Opponents of the pivot have raised three main objections. First, some worry that the pivot will unnecessarily antagonize China. This misperception ignores the fact that deepening engagement with Beijing has been a central and irrefutable feature of the rebalancing policy. Examples of the new approach include the establishment of the annual U.S.-China Strategic and Economic Dialogue, a comprehensive set of meetings chaired by the U.S. secretaries of state and the treasury and their Chinese counterparts, and the Strategic Security Dialogue, through which the two countries have held unprecedented high-level discussions on such sensitive matters as maritime security and cybersecurity. Tensions might rise due to the increased U.S. military presence in Asia and Washington’s more robust outreach to China’s neighbors. But bilateral ties are developing in such a way that any disagreements produced by the pivot will be addressed in the broader context of a more stable and cooperative U.S.-Chinese relationship.

A second critique stems from the argument that it would be unwise or unrealistic to shift Washington’s focus from the Middle East to Asia given the conflicts in Afghanistan and Syria, the instability in Egypt and Iraq, and the long-running confrontation between Iran and the Western powers. But this criticism relies on a caricature of the rebalancing strategy. According to this view, the Middle East and South Asia have sapped U.S. power and prestige and the pivot is really an attempt to cut and run by turning to the more peaceful and profitable shores of the Asia-Pacific. It is certainly true that the Obama administration has tried to reduce the U.S. footprint in the Middle East. But even though resources are finite, foreign policy is not a zero-sum game, and the criticism that paying more attention to Asia is somehow an admission of strategic defeat in the Middle East misses a crucial reality: during the past decade, the very Asian countries to which Washington wants to pay more attention have quietly built a substantial stake in the furtherance of peace and stability across the Middle East and South Asia and very much want the United States to preserve its influence in those regions.

Not long ago, most Asian nations were predominantly concerned with developments in their backyards and tended to see problems elsewhere as someone else’s responsibility. One of the most important successes of President George W. Bush’s Asia policy was to encourage the region’s rising powers to contribute more in other parts of the world. Partly in response, during the Bush years, for the first time, many East Asian governments developed an “out of area” perspective and engaged more in diplomacy, development, and security in the Middle East and South Asia. Japan has become a leading supporter of civil society development in Afghanistan, funding schools and civil service organizations and training Afghans in criminal justice, education, health care, and agriculture. In the wake of the Arab Spring, South Korea began supporting development across the Middle East. Indonesia, Malaysia, and Thailand have provided material assistance to training programs for doctors, police officers, and teachers in Afghanistan and Iraq, and Australia and New Zealand have sent special forces to fight in Afghanistan. Even China has been more active in the behind-the-scenes diplomacy aimed at constraining Iran’s nuclear ambitions, addressing piracy on the high seas, and shaping Afghanistan’s future.

Of course, encouragement from Washington is only one factor behind Asian countries’ growing involvement in the Middle East; another undeniable element is their increasing thirst for oil and gas from the Persian Gulf. Asia consumes some 30 million barrels of oil every day, more than twice the amount that the EU does. Asian governments know that a hasty U.S. retreat from the Middle East would carry with it unacceptable risks to their countries’ energy security and economic growth. As a result, they have invested substantial political and financial capital in, and in some cases sent military forces to, the Middle East over the course of more than a decade to supplement, not supplant, the stabilizing role of the United States. Put simply, Washington’s Asian partners support the pivot but would hardly cheer the prospect of U.S. disengagement from the Middle East -- and crucially, they do not seem to see any contradiction between these two positions.

A third argument against the pivot concerns the sustainability of the approach during a time of budget cuts: as defense spending falls, skeptics wonder how the United States will be able to invest the resources necessary to reassure its Asian allies and dissuade would-be provocateurs, especially as China’s power and influence continue to grow. The answer is that rebalancing toward Asia will not require dramatic new funding; rather, the Pentagon will need to be more flexible and find better ways to spend. For example, as the United States reduces the overall size of its army, it should sustain its military presence in Asia and invest in naval and air capabilities better suited to the region’s security environment. And given that U.S. defense spending is unlikely to increase significantly anytime soon, Washington should do more to improve the capacity of Asian militaries by conducting more educational and professional exchanges, enhancing multilateral military exercises, passing along equipment that U.S. forces no longer need, and engaging in more joint planning.


Although the most common arguments against the rebalancing do not withstand scrutiny, the policy nevertheless faces major challenges. Perhaps chief among these is a lack of human capital. After more than a decade of war and counterinsurgency, the United States has developed and promoted an entire generation of soldiers, diplomats, and intelligence specialists well versed in ethnic rivalry in Iraq, the tribal differences in Afghanistan, postconflict reconstruction strategies, and U.S. Special Forces and drone tactics. But Washington has not made any comparable effort to develop a sustained cadre of Asia experts across the U.S. government, and a surprising number of senior government officials make their first visits to the region only once they have reached high-level positions near the end of their careers. This is a genuine weakness in the U.S. foreign policy establishment, since even the most accomplished public servant will find it difficult to navigate Asia’s complexities without prior experience in the region. The pivot to Asia will therefore affect the budgets of civilian government agencies, not just that of the Pentagon, as the United States invests more in ensuring that U.S. diplomats, aid workers, trade negotiators, and intelligence professionals have the language skills and exposure to Asia they need to do their jobs well.

The pivot will also be buffeted by the steady stream of crises that other regions -- especially the Middle East -- will surely continue to supply. At the same time, pressure to “come home” seems certain to grow. In the wake of every modern American conflict, from World War I to the 1990–91 Gulf War, the public has put pressure on politicians and officials to refocus on domestic issues. The past 13 years of war have again triggered this instinctive insularity, which has also been fostered by a frustratingly slow economic recovery after the financial crisis. Although internationalist and strong-defense strains still exist in U.S. politics, there are subtle (and not so subtle) signs in Congress that the United States may be entering a new era in which U.S. engagement abroad -- even in areas critical to the country’s economic well-being, such as Asia -- will be a tougher sell. Those political constraints will only make a hard job even harder: when it comes to Asia, the to-do list is long, both for the remaining years of the Obama administration and beyond.


In Asia, economics and security are inextricably linked, and the United States will not be able to sustain its leadership there through military might alone. That is why the successful conclusion of the TPP -- which will require intense negotiations overseas and on Capitol Hill -- is a cardinal priority. The agreement would immediately benefit the U.S. economy and would create a long-term trade system in Asia that could not be dragged down by protectionism. To give the United States added leverage in the negotiations, Congress should quickly reinstate fast-track trade promotion authority. Under that system, after negotiating the TPP and other free-trade agreements, the White House could present them for up-or-down votes in Congress, which would not be able to amend or filibuster the deals. The Obama administration should also leverage the U.S. energy boom and accelerate the export of liquefied natural gas to Asia to enhance the energy security of its allies and partners there and to send a strong signal of U.S. commitment to the region’s development.

Washington’s ever-deepening engagement with Beijing is already yielding dividends as the countries increasingly coordinate their approaches to Iran and North Korea while managing potential crises in the South China Sea. But the United States will only find it more difficult to navigate relations with a rising China that is now both a “strategic partner,” as President Bill Clinton described it in 1998, and a “strategic competitor,” as Bush later dubbed it.

China’s attempts to change the territorial status quo in the East China and South China seas -- for example, by establishing an “air defense identification zone” in the East China Sea over islands administered by Japan -- present an immediate challenge. The United States will have to make clear to China that revisionist behavior is incompatible with stable U.S.-Chinese relations, much less with the “new type of major-country relationship” that President Xi Jinping has proposed to Obama. Washington recently took a step in the right direction when senior administration officials publicly questioned the legality of China’s expansive territorial claims and warned against the establishment of a second air defense identification zone, this one in the South China Sea.

Across the East China Sea, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is seeking to steer Japan out of decades of economic malaise and inject the country with a newfound sense of pride and influence. Washington will have to continue to urge Tokyo to act with restraint and sensitivity, especially when it comes to the controversies over Japan’s imperial past. Abe recently visited the Yasukuni Shrine, which honors Japan’s war dead, including some convicted of war crimes committed during War World II. The visit might have helped him with some political constituencies at home, but the international costs were high: it raised questions in Washington, further soured Japan’s relations with South Korea, and made China more resolute in its unwillingness to deal directly with Japan as long as Abe is in power.

Amid this tense diplomatic backdrop, the United States will be working with Japan’s Self-Defense Forces so that Japan can take a more active security role in the region and the world. This will involve countering Chinese propaganda that characterizes Japan’s constitutional reinterpretation and military modernization as reactionary or militaristic, when in fact they are perfectly reasonable steps -- and long overdue. The United States will also have to keep devoting considerable political capital to improving ties between Japan and South Korea; a stronger relationship between those two countries would help in dealing with the enormous and growing threat posed by North Korea.

The challenges in Southeast Asia are quite different from those in the Northeast, but no less important to U.S. national interests. A number of countries in Southeast Asia, including Cambodia, Malaysia, Myanmar, and Thailand, are going through varying degrees of political turmoil that could alter their foreign policies. As the chips fall, Washington must adhere to basic principles of democracy and human rights without doing so dogmatically or in ways that would reduce U.S. leverage and influence. Rather than betting on winners, the best approach would be to focus on issues that matter most to people in the region no matter who is in power, such as education, poverty alleviation, and natural-disaster response.

In addition to increasing U.S. participation in Asia’s multilateral forums, Washington should support the development of a rule-based regional order by throwing its full weight behind efforts to use international law and arbitration to address sovereignty disputes in the South China Sea. The Philippines has taken its competing claims with China to the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea. Without making judgments (for now) about the merits of specific claims, Washington should help build an international consensus by calling on all states in Asia to publicly support this mechanism, since the tribunal represents a test of whether the region is prepared to manage its disputes through legal and peaceful means.

The United States cannot rebalance to Asia by itself. It will be essential to bring along European countries, which can make substantial contributions in areas such as international law and institution building. If the tenor of its bilateral relations permits, Washington should also explore opportunities for greater collaboration in East Asia with India and Russia. And of course, it will also be necessary for countries in the region, particularly in Southeast Asia, to demonstrate leadership and initiative to complement U.S. efforts. The point of the pivot to Asia is to foster an open, peaceful, and prosperous region in which governments rely on rules, norms, and institutions to settle differences, rather than coercion and force. The pivot is a U.S. initiative, but its ultimate success will not depend on Washington alone.

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  • KURT M. CAMPBELL is Chair and CEO of the Asia Group. From 2009 to 2013, he served as U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs. ELY RATNER is a Senior Fellow in and Deputy Director of the Asia-Pacific Security Program at the Center for a New American Security. Follow him on Twitter @elyratner.
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