A Changing East Asia and U.S. Foreign Policy

Current Issues in U.S.-ROK Relations

May 29, 2012


The rise of China is precipitating a power transition in East Asia. China has become the top trading partner of almost every country in the region. Its military power is increasing to match that of the United States. Asymmetrical interdependence between China and other regional states across various dimensions continues to grow.

Choi Kang

President, Institute of Foreign Policy and National Security, Korea National Diplomatic Academy

East Asia has also been experiencing structural changes. Despite some progress in modernizing the U.S.-led alliance system, U.S. bilateral alliances have been relatively static, while minilateral or multilateral organizations and institutions are advancing. The East Asia Summit (EAS), China-Japan-South Korea (C-J-K) Summit, ASEAN+ 3 (Association of Southeast Asian Nations plus China, Japan, and South Korea), and the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) have become active and are expected to expand their respective roles and areas of influence. The increasing dynamism resulting from integration and cooperation among the countries in the region has become visible and multidimensional.

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Security Alliances


South Korea

Regional Organizations

Still, other regional dynamics may impede this integration and serve as sources of conflict. Nationalism, territorial disputes, and unresolved historical issues have recently become more contentious. Furthermore, the uncertain outcome of ongoing political transformation and democratization in certain countries may create instability. Ultimately, the changing region is best characterized as "iAsia"—or an Asia of inequality, integration, innovation, investment, and instability.

U.S. Policy Toward the Asia-Pacific

Against this backdrop, President Barack Obama has indicated his administration's intention to refocus U.S. policy toward the Asia-Pacific region. This agenda reflects the rediscovery of the importance of the Transpacific axis in the twenty-first century in various dimensions from security to economics. Engagement and enlargement capture the basic direction of this Obama policy, which includes the following elements:

The United States has been passive in various regional dialogue mechanisms.
  • strengthening traditional alliances
  • strengthening partnerships with other regional countries
  • managing and developing a cooperative relationship with China
  • participating in and working with multilateral regional mechanisms
  • developing and strengthening trade relations (through the Korea-U.S. Free Trade Agreement and the Trans-Pacific Partnership)

How the Obama administration will implement this policy remains to be seen. But the following concerns should be taken into account. First, the United States has been arguing that it is an Asia-Pacific country. Unfortunately, such rhetoric has not been substantiated through concrete policy or action. Despite the emergence of new challenges, such as the rise of China and intensified North Korean provocations, the United States has maintained nearly the same level of engagement and presence in the region since the end of the Cold War. It continues to appear preoccupied with the Middle East. Furthermore, throughout the Bush administration, rather than underscore the importance of U.S. forward deployment in East Asia, the United States highlighted the concept of strategic flexibility, which emphasizes the option of redeploying forces in the region elsewhere. Also, unlike China, the United States has been passive in various regional dialogue mechanisms. Its ties with the region have been overwhelmed by China's regional ties in security, economy, and trade. In turn, the overall credibility of U.S. policy toward the region is questioned by its allies and partners in the region.

Second, U.S. policy has been relatively reactive to regional dynamics. The United States has not paid sufficient attention to the unfolding changes in the region, and its policies are selective and issue-based, rather than comprehensive. This aspect of U.S. foreign policy toward the region has inspired skepticism among East Asian countries about whether the United States has a clear vision for the Asia-Pacific.

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Security Alliances


South Korea

Regional Organizations

Third, the U.S. approach in this region has been driven by traditional concerns and concepts of security. Consequently, it has relied primarily on its bilateral alliances with the Republic of Korea (ROK), Japan, and Australia. Though Washington often stresses the parallel or complementary development of bilateral and multilateral cooperation mechanisms and institutions, it usually defers to (or prefers) the former. Countries in the region have other security concerns, however, and may prefer alternative mechanisms to address them.

Future Concerns and Recommendations

Without a clear, common vision with guiding principles for the region, it will be impossible to overcome distrust.

Most East Asian states welcome the Asia pivot as a stabilizing force in the face of China's rising influence. However, the United States should establish the reliability of its regional policy through sustainability and consistency.

To achieve these objectives, the United States should strengthen its relationships with the region across various dimensions and issue areas, not only through verbal commitments but through concrete action. It should try to build a system for regional cooperation and integration so as to become a real "resident power" in the region. The United States should operationalize its stated commitment to the region.

China may consider the U.S. approach toward East Asia a policy of encirclement and employ countermeasures. U.S. allies or partners may be forced to make a strategic choice between the United States and China. This will be a significant challenge, as China's relations with these countries are so complex and intertwined that the decision to side with the United States will be costly. It is imperative that the United States understand this. Ultimately, U.S. ability to strengthen cooperation with China will be a determining factor of the success of its policy toward the region.

The United States should discuss with its allies and partners the form and conditions of the desired regional architecture. Though there is talk about peace, stability, and prosperity, there have been few, if any, meetings that have comprehensively assessed and forecasted the future regional strategic environment. Without a clear and common vision with guiding principles for the region, it will be impossible to overcome strategic distrust. Efforts must also be made to devise an action plan to attain the desired regional architecture and end-state.

The United States should think of ways to make bilateral and multilateral mechanisms mutually complementary. This approach will require that Washington enhance its visibility in the existing multilateral forums and engage in issue-driven cooperation either in minilateral or multilateral form, especially in nontraditional security.

Finally, in this time of financial constraint, careful management of burden sharing, budgets, roles, missions, and capabilities will be critical for maintaining and strengthening domestic support for U.S. alliances in the region.

The United States should take into account the concerns of its allies and partners and enhance its understanding of regional dynamics in East Asia. For that purpose, strategic dialogue with regional countries should be strengthened and expanded. U.S. participation in and contribution to multilateral forums should also be encouraged. And parallel and mutually reinforcing development of bi- and multilateral cooperation will help the United States become a true resident power in East Asia.

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