INASIA

Insights and Analysis

Rethinking America’s Role in Asia

September 29, 2021

By John J. Brandon

In the past U.S. administration, long-standing assumptions about the global political order were repeatedly questioned, and actions were taken that represented unexpected departures from established U.S. foreign policy positions. Asians responded with a mix of confusion, concern, relief, and approval. Many feared the United States might withdraw from the region. This never happened, but many Asians still believed that the U.S. was insufficiently engaged. One durable truth, however, is that Asia remains a vast, diverse, and complex region full of conflicting trends and differing interpretations. While there are vocal minorities in Asia opposed to any U.S. presence, Asian nations, by and large, want a United States that is engaged in their region. But what should this engagement look like?

 

Earlier this year, The Asia Foundation assembled a small, select group of leading political, security, economic, and trade specialists to consider this question. These specialists from China, India, Indonesia, Japan, South Korea, Nepal, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, and Vietnam met virtually to share their perspectives on U.S. policies and prospects in Northeast, South, and Southeast Asia.

Following these discussions, three of the participants were charged with writing the report: Chairman H. E. Han Sung-Joo, former foreign minister of South Korea and ambassador to the United States, and Cochairs Dr. Kirida Bhaopichitr, director of the Economic Intelligence Service at the Thai Development Research Institute, and Dr. C. Raja Mohan, director of the Institute for South Asian Studies at the National University of Singapore. Their report, Asian Voices on the Future of United States–Asia Relations: Strategic Recommendations for the Biden Administration on Foreign Policy towards Asia, is now available online.

A Chinese cityscape (photo: Ted Alcorn / The Asia Foundation)

The Asian Voices report provides analysis and recommendations on a broad range of issues facing Asian and U.S. interests in the region, from U.S.-China competition, Asian regional architecture and alliances, and Covid-19 to economics, trade and investment, technology issues, democracy, and climate change. Here are some of the report’s findings and recommendations:

  • Washington and Asia must recover their common ground. The U.S. establishment must consult closely with Asian policymakers to explain the internal changes in America, their effects on U.S. foreign policy, and the rationale for current U.S. approaches.
  • If the Covid-19 pandemic has accelerated the digitalization of the global economy, the deepening technological competition between the United States and China threatens to splinter the digital world. As China draws Asia into its technological orbit, the United States must respond with its own digital initiatives. Washington should promote greater engagement between U.S. innovation hubs and Asian start-up ecosystems and support an ongoing dialogue with Asian governments on the domestic and international regulation of emerging technologies.
  • The United States must allay Asia’s anxiety that U.S. trade policy is backtracking from the economic globalization that has been its hallmark in Asia. Resolving current trade disputes with Asian nations, including China, and building a new consensus on global trade reform is essential to meet the concerns of all actors. The United States should also reconsider its rejection of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) and its successor agreement, the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP) and flesh out plans for a new pact on digital commerce with Asia.
  • America’s return to the Paris Agreement is welcome, but the country must make tough decisions about resources and strategies to become a technology leader in curbing carbon emissions. The United States should shift decisively away from coal-fired energy both at home and abroad and work to convince Japan and other allies to do the same, investing instead in clean-energy projects—solar, wind, tidal, and geothermal—to reduce Asia’s destructive reliance on coal. The United States could offer incentives such as tax breaks, duty-free imports, preferential loans, and easier financing to boost investment in renewables.
  • Although the Biden administration has adopted a respectful tone toward the promotion of democracy and human rights, there is deep concern in Asia that these issues could be weaponized against the region, which would undermine the U.S. goal of rebuilding strategic partnerships. The United States should support the Open Government Partnership (OGP) and push to expand its purview to include judicial independence, the rule of law, and the empowerment of civil society, elements of democratic governance that the great majority of citizens throughout Asia desire.

What most Asians want is for America to enunciate with greater clarity and precision its vision of its role in Asia.


To constructively address these critical issues and others explored in the report, such as the tenacious Covid-19 pandemic and an increasingly muscular China, Asian voices must be heard. Geography doesn’t lie. The United States is a distant power, but its global reach remains vast. Asian countries want the United States to be not too near, but also not too far. What most Asians want is for America to enunciate with greater clarity and precision its vision of its role in Asia.

Read the report, Asian Voices on the Future of United States–Asia Relations: Strategic Recommendations for the Biden Administration on Foreign Policy towards Asia.

John Brandon is The Asia Foundation’s senior director of international relations programs. He can be reached at [email protected]. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author, not those of The Asia Foundation.

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