Asia is reintegrating, but the United States (US) simply isn't adapting quickly enough. And it is essential to adapt US policy to the contours of change in Asia if the US wishes to remain vital and relevant there.
What's the problem? For Washington, it is at once intellectual, strategic and bureaucratic.
Intellectually, the US still has three separate foreign policies in Asia — one for East Asia, another for South Asia, and a third for Central Asia (which it scarcely regards as part of Asia at all). Even as Asia reintegrates, then, the US is too often stuck in an outdated mode of thinking.
Strategically, traditional US roles and habits are being altered compared to, say, 10 years ago. And the Asia that is likely to emerge 10 years from now will be very different from that with which Americans have grown comfortable.
Gradually, but inexorably, the region is becoming more Asian than “Asia-Pacific”, especially in its economic and financial arrangements; more continental than subcontinental, as East and South Asia become more closely intertwined; and more Central Asian than Eurasian, as China develops its western regions and five former Soviet countries rediscover their Asian roots.
In concrete terms, this means that old US roles are being challenged by new forces. In East Asia, for example, preferential trade agreements, regionally-based regulations and standards, and institutions created without US involvement – most notably, the Asean Plus Three and a related China-Japan-South Korea mechanism – hold the potential to marginalise the US in time. In Central Asia, Washington has, for nearly two decades, promoted pipeline diversification away from Russia and towards the West across the Caspian Sea, only to have the new oil and gas pipelines run eastward to China. And in South Asia, the US has developed a strategic relationship with India while fading elsewhere as China assumes a larger role.