The Asia Society Task Force reviews the phenomenon of East Asian regionalism and offers policy-relevant suggestions for the Obama administration to renew and deepen engagement between the United States and Asia.
The United States' unique set of bilateral alliances in Asia adds significantly to its presence in the region. At the same time, the United States has been a regular participant in a number of multilateral activities in the region. However, U.S. participation in the multilateral sphere has been far from complete, and there is a common, if unjustified, perception that for a time at the beginning of this century, the United States lessened its focus on the region. During the same period, Asian countries continued along a path toward greater regional multilateral interaction, sometimes to the exclusion of the United States.
Under the Barack Obama administration, the United States has given greater attention to Asia in its foreign policy. Evidence of this focus includes senior-level bilateral trips to the region, engagement and increased commitment to regional multilateral efforts, and policy statements. In addition, the United States has committed to attend, for the first time, the East Asia Summit at the end of 2011. The Obama administration also has been using its platform as host of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) meetings for 2011 to encourage U.S. ties with the region and to support the Trans-Pacific Partnership negotiations. A successful APEC summit in November will open new avenues for multilateral and bilateral engagement between the United States and Asian countries. However, U.S. engagement with Asia has not yet been entrenched. There are many challenges to be overcome, and arguably, President Obama has not lived up to his claim that he is the first "Pacific" president. It is less clear what the United States can and will do after the APEC summit as the 2012 presidential election campaign begins. The United States' capacity and will to engage Asia, amid its present economic issues, should not be taken for granted.