Asia’s return to the center of world affairs is the great power shift of the 21st century. In 1750, Asia had about three-fifths of the world’s population and accounted for three-fifths of global output. By 1900, after the industrial revolution in Europe and the US, Asia’s share of global output had shrunk to one-fifth. By 2050, Asia will be well on its way back to where it was 300 years earlier.
However, rather than keeping an eye on that ball, the US wasted the first decade of this century mired in wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Now, as US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton put it in a recent speech, US foreign policy will “pivot” toward East Asia.
US President Barack Obama’s decision to rotate 2,500 US Marines through a base in northern Australia is an early sign of that pivot. In addition, last month’s APEC meeting, held in Obama’s home state of Hawaii, promoted a new set of trade talks called the Trans-Pacific Partnership. Both events reinforce Obama’s message to the Asia-Pacific region that the US intends to remain an engaged power.
The pivot toward Asia does not mean that other parts of the world are no longer important; on the contrary, Europe, for example, has a much larger and richer economy than China’s. However, as Obama’s national security adviser Tom Donilon recently said, US foreign policy over the past few years has been buffeted by the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, concerns about terrorism, nuclear-proliferation threats in Iran and North Korea, and the recent Arab uprisings. Obama’s trip to Asia last month was an effort to align US foreign policy priorities with the region’s long-term importance.
In Donilon’s words: “By elevating this dynamic region to one of our top strategic priorities, Obama is showing his determination not to let our ship of state be pushed off course by prevailing crises.”
The Obama administration also announced that, whatever the outcome of the defense budget debates: “We are going to make sure that we protect the capabilities that we need to maintain our presence in the Asia-Pacific” region.
Obama’s trip was also a message to China. After the 2008 financial crisis, many Chinese expressed the mistaken belief that the US was in terminal decline and that China should be more assertive — particularly in pursuing its maritime claims in the South China Sea — at the expense of the US’ allies and friends. During Obama’s first year in office, his administration placed a high priority on cooperation with China, but Chinese leaders seemed to misread US policy as a sign of weakness.
The administration took a tougher line when Clinton addressed the South China Sea question at the ASEAN meeting in Hanoi in July last year. Chinese President Hu Jintao’s (胡錦濤) subsequent official visit to Washington in January this year was successful, but many Chinese editorialists said that the US was trying to “contain” China and prevent its peaceful rise.
China’s anxiety about a supposed US containment policy is on the rise again, now that Clinton is insisting that the country’s maritime disputes with its neighbors be placed on the agenda at next year’s East Asia Summit in Manila, which will be attended by Obama, Hu and other regional leaders.
However, US policy toward China is different from Cold War containment of the Soviet bloc. Whereas the US and the Soviet Union had limited trade and social contact, the US is China’s largest overseas market. It also welcomed and facilitated China’s entry into the WTO and opens its universities’ gates to 125,000 Chinese students each year. If current US policy toward China is supposed to be Cold War-style containment, it seems unusually warm.