This fall marks ten years since the Obama administration rolled out its famous “rebalance to Asia.” Standing before the Australian Parliament in 2011, U.S. President Barack Obama declared that the United States was “turning our attention to the vast potential of the Asia Pacific region.”
Even at the time, American officials were clearly mindful of the widespread concerns about U.S. commitment to the region and skepticism that they would fulfill their sweeping promises. Then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton penned a widely read article in which she made the case that in the coming decade, the United States needed to pivot away from the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan and instead bolster its investment in the Asia-Pacific region. “In Asia, they ask whether we are really there to stay, whether we are likely to be distracted again by events elsewhere, whether we can make—and keep—credible economic and strategic commitments, and whether we can back those commitments with action,” she wrote. “The answer is: We can, and we will.”
Ten years and two administrations later, it is clear that the United States has fallen short. In speeches and statements, the Obama, Trump, and Biden administrations have all appropriately emphasized the singular importance of Asia to the United States’ future. Congressional leaders of both parties have similarly asserted the region’s importance and talked tough about competition with China. But such rhetoric has often been disconnected from actual U.S. policies, budgets, and diplomatic attention. As Michèle Flournoy, Obama’s undersecretary of defense for policy, recently lamented, “Washington has not delivered on its promised ‘pivot’ to Asia.”
Today, President Joe Biden asserts that “America is back” in its traditional leadership role, and his administration’s early approach to Asia has hit many of the right notes. But fulfilling Biden’s ambitions in Asia will require not just vision but also execution. Moving forward, the administration and Congress must resolve the recurring disconnect over the past decade between ambitious rhetoric and underwhelming action. Their three top priorities should be refocusing on a positive agenda and strategy for the region rather than framing U.S. engagement as a response to China, embracing a more proactive agenda on trade and economic integration, and increasing American diplomatic and military resources in the region. Such a strategy can help secure U.S. interests in regional peace, security, and prosperity—and the future of American leadership in Asia.
In her seminal 2011 article, Clinton described six lines of action that would give substance to the rebalance to Asia. She committed the United States to strengthening its bilateral security alliances, deepening its working relationships with emerging powers, engaging with regional multilateral institutions, expanding trade and investment, forging a broad-based military presence, and advancing democracy and human rights. With the benefit of hindsight, it is now possible to assess progress in each of these areas.
Over the past decade, the United States’ bilateral treaty-based security alliances have faced serious and novel challenges, from without and within. China has grown more economically and militarily powerful and is increasingly resorting to coercive actions, such as maritime gray-zone operations and economic bullying to assert its sovereignty claims. These actions are difficult to deter because they often fall below the threshold of provoking a U.S. and allied military response. North Korea’s nuclear and missile capabilities continue to advance, presenting new challenges for the deterrence strategy on the Korean Peninsula.
As these external challenges have grown, U.S. alliances in Asia have also confronted internal pressures. The Trump administration levied tariffs on several U.S. allies on flimsy “national security” grounds and threatened to withdraw some U.S. forces from the region unless the allies that host them quadrupled their support payments. Today, U.S. alliances with Australia, Japan, and South Korea are back on more solid ground, but ties with the Philippines and Thailand are at risk owing to those countries’ democratic backsliding and tendencies to accommodate China. Public opinion polling in all five allied countries show that their citizens are concerned about whether Washington will remain a reliable ally.
U.S. relationships with emerging powers and developing countries in the region have also been tested. The U.S.-Chinese relationship may now have reached its worst point in half a century. Many who hoped that China would emerge as a “responsible stakeholder” have been chastened by developments in the South China Sea, the East China Sea, the Taiwan Strait, Hong Kong, and Xinjiang. In these areas, Beijing’s behavior demonstrates a willingness to act coercively in pursuit of its sovereignty claims while more brazenly suppressing human rights closer to home.
Meanwhile, U.S. ties with India, Indonesia, Taiwan, Vietnam, and the countries of the Pacific Islands have fared better, but there are risks on the horizon. Many decisionmakers in Southeast Asia have been disheartened by a perceived lack of U.S. commitment and declining influence: in one poll of Southeast Asian elites, 77 percent of respondents assessed that U.S. engagement in the region declined over the past four years.
The region’s multilateral institutions have also seen their influence decline. The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) has struggled to respond effectively to the recent coup in Myanmar and Chinese pressure, particularly in the South China Sea. The Quadrilateral Security Dialogue between Australia, India, Japan, and the United States has flourished despite—or perhaps partially because of—ASEAN’s struggles. But this grouping omits Southeast Asia and its 650 million people, and any U.S. strategy in Asia that neglects this critical subregion has a gaping hole at its heart.
Perhaps the biggest U.S. failure has been on trade and investment. In 2016, both U.S. presidential candidates opposed the comprehensive, high-standard Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), to the chagrin of Japan and ten other countries that subsequently adopted a renamed deal. Since then, economic integration has accelerated: in 2019, the EU-Japan Economic Partnership Agreement entered into force, and last year the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership linked the economies of Australia, China, Japan, South Korea, ASEAN members, and other countries in a trade agreement that will cover 30 percent of global population and production. The United States remains a conspicuous bystander to these economic agreements.
Washington has also struggled to forge a broad-based military presence in the region. China’s military is far stronger today than it was when the rebalance was announced. In 2011, China’s military expenditure was roughly twice the size of Japan’s—but by 2020, it was more than five times as large. In 2011, the U.S. Navy had 12 more “battle force” ships than the Chinese navy, but today China fields roughly 40 more ships than the United States. And Beijing has surged investment into other maritime capabilities, such as its expanding Coast Guard and Maritime Militia, which play a front line role in asserting Beijing’s sovereignty claims. Quantitative comparisons only go so far, but the basic trend of a shifting balance of power is clear.
Unlike the U.S. military, which is active globally, China’s operations are concentrated in East Asia. U.S. officials regularly warn about renewed “great-power competition” and the “pacing challenge” that China represents in the region, but Washington has been slow to act. Rather than a broad-based presence, the United States now depends more than ever on its forces in Guam, Japan, and South Korea. This is of particular concern given the vulnerability of fixed bases to China’s numerous conventional missiles.
Finally, the state of democracy and human rights in Asia has worsened considerably over the last decade. Democracy has been in decline globally for 15 consecutive years, including recent backsliding in the world’s two largest democracies: India and the United States. Efforts to deepen U.S. alliances with Thailand and the Philippines have been frustrated by concerns about the human rights situations in both countries. Coups in Thailand and Myanmar have also undercut democratic reform efforts, while Beijing has significantly curtailed freedoms in Hong Kong and engaged in egregious acts of repression against the Uyghur population in its northwestern region of Xinjiang.
It is hard to square this sobering reality with the assertion made by both the Obama and Trump administrations that Asia is “the single most consequential region for America’s future.” Washington’s challenges in Asia are often blamed on others, yet the past ten years show that they also stem from failures of U.S. vision, strategy, and execution. The Trump administration did its fair share of damage, but shortcomings were evident long before it began.
Today, the Biden administration appears determined to reassert U.S. regional and global leadership. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin recently made a successful trip to Southeast Asia and Vice President Kamala Harris is heading to the region soon. However, the administration’s success in Asia will require avoiding its predecessors’ mistakes and minimizing the recurring gap between U.S. rhetoric and action. The administration and Congress should draw several lessons from recent history to develop a revitalized U.S. Asia strategy.
First, U.S. discourse on Asia has become excessively China-centric and must be recalibrated to realize a positive vision for the broader region. Too often, U.S. leaders conflate tough talk on China with an effective regional strategy. But a fixation on Beijing diminishes the agency and importance of other countries in Asia, which will play a crucial role in determining the region’s future and in shaping China’s behavior. China strategy should flow from regional strategy, not the other way around. Although “great-power competition” became a defining phrase during the Trump administration, such slogans provide little concrete guidance for leaders in Washington and even less for foreign counterparts. Worse still, focusing narrowly on U.S.-Chinese competition deprives the United States of its greatest strategic advantage: a network of countries that share many of its interests and often its values.
The Biden administration has acknowledged the importance of getting Asia right, but it has yet to put forward a positive, comprehensive regional agenda that can attract an array of diverse countries. U.S. leaders should aim to broaden and deepen Washington’s partnerships on issues of security, economics, technology, and governance, each of which will require different coalitions that will shift in composition according to the specific issue and circumstances at hand. This will not only bolster cooperation with Asian countries in pursuit of shared goals, it will also place significant pressure on China to compete positively in the region. In short, the path toward a more peaceful and prosperous region goes through the rest of Asia first and China second.
A critical component of a positive regional agenda is developing and executing a clear economic strategy for Asia. In 2016, Kurt Campbell, now the White House’s top adviser on Asia, wrote that “economics and security are inextricably linked in Asia. . . . Economic statecraft should therefore be elevated to the core of U.S. foreign policy.” This assessment was correct then and has only been thrown into sharper relief by Beijing’s growing use of economic coercion to achieve its foreign policy goals. Three-quarters of experts in Southeast Asia welcome U.S. economic engagement, while nearly the same percentage worry about China’s growing regional economic influence. The welcome mat is out, but Washington isn’t stepping up.
Washington’s disengagement from accelerating Asian economic integration has harmed its own position and hampered its ability to shape and promote a stable regional order. Despite its imperfections, there is no realistic alternative to renegotiating entrance to the renamed TPP, now called the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP). Predictably, the previous administration’s experience demonstrated that unilateral tariffs and bilateral trade deals will not rewrite the region’s economic rules or compel China to change its behavior.
When it comes to a comprehensive, order-defining trade deal in Asia, it is the CPTPP or bust. Starting negotiations on a separate multilateral trade deal is unrealistic and a digital trade deal will be insufficient, particularly for developing economies in Southeast Asia. Even the United Kingdom has expressed its intent to join the CPTPP as part of its own “tilt toward Asia.” Ten years ago, the Obama administration made the TPP the litmus test of U.S. economic engagement in the region. If the Biden administration cannot sell the American people and the Congress on the CPTPP, then for many in Asia—especially emerging economies increasingly interlinked with China’s economy—claims that the United States is “back” may ring hollow.
Another top priority should be a diplomatic surge across the region, and especially in Southeast Asia. Long overdue nominations for key diplomatic posts have started to trickle out, but nearly seven months into the Biden administration, it still has not nominated an ambassador for any of the five U.S. treaty allies in Asia or to ASEAN or China.
Biden should also travel to Asia himself this fall and give a high-profile speech setting out U.S. objectives and committing real resources to accomplish those ends. Ideally, such a speech would be delivered in Southeast Asia—in Jakarta, for example—and paired with a complementary speech in the United States to make the case to the American people for increased investment in the region and for joining the CPTPP.
Finally, the administration and Congress must work together to reverse the current shift of the military balance of power away from the United States and its allies. Reinforcing deterrence in Asia will likely require adjustments in presence elsewhere, which the Pentagon has signaled will mean drawing down forces in the Middle East. As this occurs, the Pentagon should work with its Asian allies and partners to develop a robust strategy of “deterrence by denial,” which would aim to convince Beijing that it cannot obtain its objectives in Asia through the use of force, especially against Taiwan. Such a strategy will require that the Department of Defense invest in long-range conventional missiles, submarines, and stealthy strike platforms, while also reinforcing the U.S. forward presence across East Asia.
Since the United States first pledged it would rebalance to Asia, there has been a disturbing and recurrent gap between U.S. rhetoric and action. Responsibility lies with administrations of both parties and with Congress. The good news is that in stark contrast to his immediate predecessor, Biden appears committed to multilateralism and proactive leadership in Asia. Yet more than halfway into his administration’s first year, there are concerns that history may be repeating itself—or at least rhyming. In order to make good on its promise to U.S. allies and partners that “America is back,” the Biden administration must develop and execute a positive, comprehensive strategy for Asia with the hard lessons from the past decade in mind.
It makes little difference how many times U.S. officials or congressional leaders say the United States is competing with China or pivoting, rebalancing, or shifting its focus to Asia. What matters more is what they actually do.
ADAM P. LIFF is Associate Professor of East Asian International Relations at Indiana University’s Hamilton Lugar School of Global & International Studies and a Nonresident Senior Fellow in Foreign Policy at the Brookings Institution.