GW Research Spring 2014 Edition

Hanging In The Balance

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U.S. policy shift in Asia-Pacific walks tightrope of relationships in region

May 01, 2014

A recent U.S. policy shift toward greater involvement in the Asia-Pacific area has been embraced by many of the region’s nations, but its success hinges on an exceedingly delicate, regionwide balancing act, according to a new analysis.

“A happy ending is possible but not guaranteed,” researchers from the Elliott School of International Affairs conclude in an August report from GW’s Sigur Center for Asian Studies.

When President Obama took office, he initially followed the precedent of both the Clinton and Bush administrations in their approach to the region, says lead author Robert G. Sutter, a professor of practice in the Elliott School. “The bottom line was: manage that relationship with China well, and you didn’t do things with neighbors that would be upsetting to China,” he says.

The fall of 2011, however, marked the start of a recalibration of U.S. engagement in the region—an evolving mix of military, economic, and diplomatic initiatives—that has caused friction with China, the regional power most suspicious of U.S. aims.

For other nations the shift serves as a counterbalance to an “increasingly assertive China,” the authors write, and offers reassurance that Washington— rather than being exhausted by wars in Iraq and Afghanistan—can be a source of stability and growth in the region.

Michael E. Brown, dean of the Elliott School and one of the report’s authors, says the policy pivot is part of a “grand strategy for the United States in geostrategic terms, which makes this an issue of considerable importance.”

The shift has drawn support in Congress and in the region, even if muted, as many nations walk a tightrope of maintaining good ties with both the United States and China. Critics view the policy as antagonizing China, unsustainable, or as something the president isn’t really committed to, Dr. Sutter says.

A summit last June between President Obama and Chinese President Xi Jinping appeared “successful in meeting its limited aims,” the authors write, but it is “much too early to tell if the summit represents a turning point in a relationship that has growing structural tensions.” —Menachem Wecker