During the recently concluded presidential election campaign, the foreign policy debate largely turned on events in the Middle East and North Africa -- a region that is once again at the fore in light of continuing violence in Gaza and Israel. But the region that will likely have the greatest impact on U.S. economic and security interests in this century was conspicuously absent: the Asia-Pacific. Accounting for half the world's population and gross domestic product -- and nearly half of global trade -- Asia is undergoing a fundamental shift in the balance of power. With the rise of China and India, the United States has a unique leadership role to play in underwriting the stability of this critical region. President Barack Obama's ongoing trip to Burma, Cambodia, and Thailand -- his first overseas trip since re-election -- highlights the importance his administration places on "rebalancing" to Asia. It also provides a timely opportunity to assess the implications of this policy going into the president's second term.
Over the past four years, the Obama administration has intensified diplomacy in the region, expanded bilateral partnerships, and rebalanced military resources to Asia. The administration has sought to deepen relationships with treaty allies like Australia, Japan, Korea, the Philippines, and Thailand -- which the president visited over the weekend to discuss trade and security cooperation. It has also sought to broaden ties with key partners such as India and Vietnam, and invest in the region's key multilateral forums. Last year, Obama was the first U.S. president to attend the East Asia Summit, which brings together all of the region's major and emerging powers to discuss a wide range of regional concerns, including energy and the environment, maritime security, non-proliferation, and disaster response. This year, as the summit kicks off in Phnom Penh, he will be in attendance again, underscoring his consistent message that the United States sees itself as a resident power in Asia.
The administration's military strategy in Asia has bolstered regional partnerships, enhancing our work with partners throughout Southeast Asia to build their defense capacities. It is also beginning to revamp U.S. defense posture in the region -- with initiatives such as shifting more of our naval fleet to Asia, stationing littoral combat ships in Singapore, and rotating up to 2,500 Marines through Australia -- to make our posture more strategically relevant, operationally resilient, and politically sustainable. In addition, the Pentagon's January 2012 strategic guidance called for increased investment in future capabilities to safeguard the U.S. freedom of maneuver in the face of so-called "anti-access and area denial" threats.
This rebalancing has drawn criticism from both ends of the spectrum, however. Some have labeled these changes more rhetorical than substantive; others have mischaracterized the approach as an aggressive effort to contain China.
While nether is true, the administration's Asia policy will undoubtedly require continued calibration. However, rebalancing to Asia is about far more than U.S. security interests. It is driven first and foremost by the reality of U.S. economic interdependence with the region as a whole. To that end, the Obama administration has appropriately made the promotion of trade and investment a central plank of its Asia policy. Over the past four years, the administration signed a Free Trade Agreement with South Korea; announced $10 billion in trade deals during the president's November 2010 visit to India; hosted the largest-ever U.S.-Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) business forum; and is currently negotiating the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which spans nine countries and represents one of the world's most expansive trade agreements.