Upon taking office in January 2009, Obama administration officials proclaimed a U.S. “return to Asia.” This pronouncement was backed with more frequent travel to the region by senior officials (Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s first trip was to Asia) and increased U.S. participation in regional multilateral meetings, culminating in the decision to sign the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Treaty of Amity and Cooperation and to participate in the East Asia Summit (EAS) at the head-of-state level. The strategic “rebalance to Asia” announced in November 2011 builds on these earlier actions to deepen and institutionalize U.S. commitment to the Asia-Pacific region.
Asia’s rapid growth and economic dynamism have greatly expanded the region’s economic and strategic weight, elevating its importance for U.S. interests and demanding an increased U.S. focus. This evolution has been welcomed by America’s Asia specialists, who have long advocated greater investment of resources and attention from high-level U.S. policymakers. At a time of often bitter partisanship in the United States, there is broad, bipartisan consensus on Asia’s importance. Indeed, partisan criticism has focused primarily on whether the administration in power is doing enough to increase U.S. engagement in Asia and whether rhetorical commitment is backed with sufficient resources.
While some initial comments about the U.S. “return to Asia” were cast in terms of correcting alleged neglect of the region by the administration of George W. Bush, senior Obama administration officials believed that the war on terror and U.S. military commitments in Iraq and Afghanistan had produced an imbalanced global footprint. The United States was overweighted in the Middle East and underweighted in the Asia-Pacific. The phrase rebalance to Asia was intended to highlight the region’s heightened priority within U.S. global policy