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Aug 31, 2012 | 01:31 GMT

7 mins read

Washington's Long Turn East

It can be difficult to separate the important from unimportant on any given day. Reflections mean to do exactly that — by thinking about what happened today, we can consider what might happen tomorrow.

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on Thursday embarked on another visit to Asia. The trip will take her to the Cook Islands for a meeting of the Pacific Islands Forum, as well as stops in Indonesia, China, East Timor and Brunei before finishing up in Vladivostok, Russia, for an Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation meeting. Clinton has focused more on East Asia than perhaps any secretary of state since Henry Kissinger, and her visits highlight the expanding attention Washington is placing on the Asia-Pacific amid changing regional dynamics.

Clinton's first overseas visit as secretary of state in February 2009 took her to Japan, Indonesia, South Korea and China, a break from previous secretaries of state, who often began their tenures with visits to Europe. In part, this was because special envoys handled other critical global issues in the early days of U.S. President Barack Obama's administration, leaving Asia to Clinton. The trip was an early sign of an intention to rebalance U.S. attention away from its traditional trans-Atlantic relations toward the more economically dynamic trans-Pacific.

Her trip was also intended to highlight a repositioning of U.S. interest away from the Middle East and South Asia, where wars had consumed significant U.S. resources, toward the Asia-Pacific. This approach was made explicit nearly three years later in Clinton's November 2011 article in Foreign Policy magazine entitled America's Pacific Century, which noted that the United States stood at a pivot point as the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan wound down. It suggested that the United States shift its attention to the Pacific rather than fall into an isolationist mode.

Since her 2009 trip to the region, Clinton has visited all the countries of East Asia with the exception of North Korea, Taiwan, East Timor and Brunei; she will make stops in the latter two on the current trip. Clinton's visit to East Timor will be a first for a U.S. secretary of state. The small nation, which held a referendum on independence from Indonesia in 1999, is seeking membership in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations regional grouping, but it also represents an example of Washington supporting its allies in taking a stronger role in regional security. Amid the violence surrounding the independence referendum, the United States urged Australia to take the lead in providing security and intervening on behalf of East Timor. Washington had military assets standing ready, but Canberra took the lead. Although this was only one incident, it is something the United States can point to when dealing with other regional allies.

The visit to the Cook Islands and participation in the Pacific Island Forum, a key regional body comprising South Pacific nations, expands U.S. attention to the "Pacific" part of Asia-Pacific and follows growing U.S. interest in the Pacific island states over the past few years. Among the Pacific islands, Washington has seen increasing Chinese economic, political and military activity over the past decade, following the trend throughout the region. As one of several measures, China has taken advantage of strained relations between U.S. ally Australia and some of the Melanesian states such as Fiji and the Solomon Islands to offer investment, loans and construction throughout the Pacific islands. Washington and its allies have taken steps in the past few years to counter this rising Chinese influence, and in April Australia began taking steps to repair its relationship with Fiji.

Clinton's visits to Indonesia and Brunei reflect the greater U.S. involvement with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, a group of 10 Southeast Asian states that together seek to increase their leverage in a region dominated by much larger powers such as China, Japan and the United States. Brunei will be taking over as chair of the group in 2013, and Clinton's visit follows a similar one by Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi earlier this year to understand Brunei's intentions and influence its actions. Washington's earlier engagement with Myanmar, as well as strengthened ties with Cambodia and Laos, were part of a broader strategy to remove obstacles for closer cooperation with the regional bloc, which Washington sees as a potential partner for countering rising Chinese regional influence. Washington is also working through other regional forums, including the East Asia Summit and the Trans-Pacific Partnership, to raise its involvement and offer an alternative to China.

In each case, the visits will deal with expanding U.S. relations but also indirectly with China's regional rise. Although China's expanded regional interaction and influence is a natural reflection of its growing economic strength and attendant political and military influence, a rising China poses a challenge to U.S. interests.

China may not directly threaten the United States, and its military may remain a generation or more behind that of the United States. But were China to emerge as the dominant Asian power, drawing on the resources and markets of the surrounding nations and wielding considerable political influence, it could challenge U.S. access to the same resources and markets and the U.S. ability to move its military forces freely through the area. In short, it could reshape the balance of regional power to the potential detriment of the United States. Washington's decision to increase Asian involvement, then, is about maintaining access to a region of dynamic economies and preventing the rise of a regional hegemonic power.

China's fears of a U.S. containment strategy like the one used against the Soviet Union may be somewhat misplaced; in a post-Cold War system where there is a single integrated global economy, it is nearly impossible to "contain" any country. Even those that sit on the edges of the international system, such as North Korea or Iran, are still able to bypass U.S. sanctions and other containment methods. But Beijing is correct that much of the U.S. activity in the region happens with an eye on China. That, like China's increasing activity, is only natural as an Asian power emerges in an area formerly dominated by the United States and others.

As Clinton conducts this tour, the United States continues to position itself as a more engaged and active Pacific power. In some sense, the United States never left the Pacific. It still accounts for a major part of U.S. trade and investment flows, a major area for the deployment of U.S. forces and bases abroad, and a significant share of U.S. diplomatic attention, particularly where it concerns China.

But Asia today is a much different place than Asia a decade or two ago. Vietnam and Indonesia are rising, albeit slowly. Even countries such as Cambodia, Myanmar and Laos are seeing economic growth that seems to run counter to the global economic cycle. Traditional allies such as Japan and South Korea are heavily focused on internal political contention. China is nearing the peak of its international growth cycle (if it hasn't already passed it), but its military and political power is still rising. China has not yet emerged as a regional hegemon, but its smaller neighbors view the United States as a temporary counter to Chinese influence.

But more fundamentally, the Cold War dichotomy is no longer present. With the collapse of the Soviet Union, the fault lines along the boundary between the Western and Soviet blocs began to come unhinged, with tremors appearing first in the Balkans, then up through the Middle East and South and Central Asia, and now appearing more acutely in East Asia. The U.S. relationship with China is profoundly different than its relationship with the Soviet Union. There are not competing systems, but rather competition within a common system. The changing dynamics of the region mean that the United States cannot simply "return" to the Asia-Pacific and expect an uncontested position of dominance, but instead it must adapt to the new regional challenges.

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