U.S. President Barack Obama arrived in Bali, Indonesia, in November 2011 for the East Asia Summit (EAS), the first time an American president has attended the annual summit, now in its sixth year.
He arrived from Australia, where he had just formalised an agreement with Canberra to expand U.S. military activity in and cooperation with Australia. That visit followed the Asian-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) conference in Hawaii the previous week, which Obama hosted.
This has all the signs of a meticulously orchestrated political itinerary, but reflects a much deeper and more fundamental shift in the region.
“The United States cannot ignore the enormity and the long-term trajectory of Asian economic activity.”
EAS has expanded in its short existence to include almost every country in the region. Washington has not only reversed its longstanding wariness of multilateral East Asian forums, but it has embraced EAS specifically and deliberately.
The United States wants EAS to serve as a decisionmaking body for policy in the region. Obama’s attendance is emblematic of an American strategy to address significant geopolitical realities.
The United States, which has depended heavily on maritime commerce since before its founding and which now controls long stretches of coast on both the Atlantic and Pacific oceans, is drawn to Asian affairs by geography and economic interest.
In 1980, the volume of trade across the Pacific matched for the first time in history that of trade across the Atlantic, and by 1990, had increased over transatlantic trade by half. The economic crises that followed, in Japan and in wider Asia, slowed this trend but did not reverse it. The United States cannot ignore the enormity and the long-term trajectory of Asian economic activity.
In fact, it is really the decade since the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks that has been the anomaly. The United States obviously never left the region, but its attention was drawn elsewhere. With Washington focused on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, China found a vacuum in which it could manoeuvre just as Russia did in its own periphery, without drawing American attention commensurate with the strategic value of the region.
But the United States is now in the process of extracting itself from entanglements that have consumed its attention and resources for a decade. And just as for Russia, that window of opportunity is beginning to close for China.
Essentially, the United States is signalling to everyone that it is turning its attention back to the region: rebalancing and rationalising its military presence while strengthening its engagement and involvement with longstanding partners and allies.
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