October 02, 2011

US strategic priorities in Asia

Friday, 30 September 2011

How does the US think about its strategic priorities in Asia? In this Policy Analysis, Rod Lyon argues that US interests sit most prominently in Washington’s mind. Among those interests, the US takes economic concerns especially seriously; it is much more inclined to see Asia as a region of economic opportunity than one of military threat. Moreover, as its own primacy becomes more contested, it is looking for partners to pick up the slack.


That perception feeds a belief that the US has reprioritised Asia in its strategic policy and is now committed to strengthening the US-designed security order across the region and offsetting China’s growing influence there. But how do Americans really see Asia today? What are the US’s strategic priorities there? And has the region itself been consciously elevated in Washington’s
priorities? Having discussed those issues with a number of Americans during travels over the past two weeks, I’m not convinced that the answers are as clear as some might wish. There are three main reasons to think that. The first will seem trivial but it bears saying:

  • US priorities in Asia are focused upon the US’s own interests in the region.
  • The second point is that economics—not military concerns—is the key driver of US interest in the region.
  • And the third point is that Washington is still at an early stage in its thinking about the future regional security environment and its own role within it.

So what is the US’s top strategic priority in Asia? When US analysts address that question, their answers tend to reflect US concerns rather than Asian ones.

One view, for example, says that the US’s top priority is to regain its position as the great power of Asia—part of the broader campaign to re‑establish the US’s position as the global leader.

A second view says that the US’s top priority in Asia is a geopolitical environment which best allows the US to pursue its economic interests there. Again, that’s a subset of a larger priority—to rebuild economic strength as a pillar of US national power in the years ahead.

A third view says the US’s top priority in Asia is to engage the emerging powers—and once more that’s a subset of a global priority to strengthen US ties to a range of countries like Brazil, India, China, and Turkey, all of which seem likely to play more substantial roles in the strategic environment now unfolding. In short, while regional countries may argue quietly over which of them is most important to Washington, the correct answer is that the US is most important to Washington.

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