On his penultimate trip to Asia this week, U.S. President Barack Obama will have an opportunity to survey the changes that have occurred there during his time in office. As he does, he will find the region much different than it was at the start of his presidency. For the Asia-Pacific region, a single phrase has come to define Obama's administration. In late 2011, as the United States finalized its withdrawal from Iraq, the president declared a great American pivot to Asia. The idea counteracted Washington's dispirited Middle Eastern policy, evoking a massive transfer of U.S. forces and resources to the Asia-Pacific area. Subsequent domestic and international interpretations envisioned the pivot as a tangible thing to be measured in the tonnage of U.S. warships deployed in the region.
This proved to be inaccurate. And when the pivot was later renamed the "rebalance," it was still more myth than reality. The United States never shed its responsibilities in the Middle East. In fact, the country found itself in new conflicts in the region, much to the dismay of those who had hoped for a real departure in foreign policy. More important, the myth obscured the fact that the United States had never left the Pacific to begin with. Even as the United States entered wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, its most robust overseas garrisons remained in Japan and the Korean Peninsula, reinforced by striking power from one of the world's most powerful naval forces, the U.S. Pacific Fleet. With or without the pivot, the United States was already the pre-eminent military power in the region.
Nonetheless, the Asia-Pacific region has undergone many changes during Obama's time in office, largely to Washington's benefit. Myanmar is no longer an isolationist dictatorship. The United States has secured the return of its forces to the Philippines in all but name. And although the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a long-stalled trade pact intended to tighten Asian integration with the United States, is unlikely to come into force before Obama leaves the White House, it has reached the ratification phase.
But most astonishing is the evolution of the United States' relationships with two former enemies, Japan and Vietnam. Once a bitter foe challenging the United States' claims to dominance in the Pacific, Japan is now an active military ally in its own right. What's more, Tokyo now appears ready to shoulder some of the burden in upholding regional security, as the United States long hoped its allies would do. Meanwhile, 41 years after Vietnam forced the United States into an unprecedented withdrawal, Obama lifted the arms embargo in place against Hanoi since 1984. Although Vietnam is not a treaty ally like Japan, this act symbolically completed the process of normalizing diplomatic ties with the United States, confirming Vietnam as a key U.S. partner. For both Japan and Vietnam, the transformations were decadeslong processes driven as much by internal politics and shifts in the overall balance of power as they were by U.S. policy. Even so, Obama can claim some credit, having helped both countries to complete the processes with an engaged foreign policy.
As Obama's time as president draws to a close, the region is growing anxious. The future trajectory of U.S. policy is uncertain. Of course, besides the United States, internal dynamics and a host of regional players also influence Asia. Still, without a full grasp on the direction of U.S. policy, other countries struggle to formulate their own policies in the region. Asia must position itself now for the inevitable shift in power.
In all the uncertainty, one thing is clear: The United States' departure from the region is a remote possibility. Much as Obama could not get the United States out of the Middle East, the next president will not remove the United States from Asia. Whether the next president opts for a pivot, a rebalance or an end to labeling U.S. policy in the Pacific, he or she will confront the same questions that the United States has always faced in the region — for instance, how best to maintain control over Asia's waterways to preserve dominance of the seas. Whoever is president, Asia will remain a central concern for the United States. In turn, the United States' clout ensures that it will continue to occupy an important role in the region. But like the dynamic Pacific itself, this role will change.