In a speech in Hawaii in November 2011, then-US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said a "pivot to Asia" was a foreign policy priority of the government of United States President Barack Obama. The 21st century, she said, would be the US' Pacific century.
That the United States has turned its attention to Asia is not really new, said Daniel Twining, Asia expert at the German Marshall Fund in Washington, DC, pointing to the Asian policies of Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush: "American Asia policy has actually shown a lot of continuity," he said.
"We have many of the building blocks already in place in terms of our military presence, in terms of our basing agreements, in terms of our economic relationships, and so there's not a need for some great new initiative on Asia. It's more about showing the flag and maintaining momentum behind current policies" - such as standing shoulder-to-shoulder with allies like Japan and South Korea.
Sticking up for allies
Not much new has happened since Hillary Clinton's pronouncement. A few hundred US soldiers have been stationed in Australia, and the US stepped up the negotiations establishing the TPP, the Trans-Pacific Partnership. This free-trade area will initially include eleven countries, including Chile, Peru, New Zealand and Singapore.
The US intends to intensify its military presence in the Pacific over the next few years - ultimately, the end of the war in Iraq and the withdrawal from Afghanistan will free up capacity. "Sixty percent of our naval fleet will be based in the Pacific by 2020," National Security Advisor Tom Donilon said in a speech in New York. "Our air force is shifting its weight to the Pacific over the next five years."
Furthermore, Donilon said the US would work together with its allies in the region "to make rapid progress in expanding radar and missile defense systems to protect against the most immediate threat facing our allies in the entire region: the dangerous and destabilizing behavior of North Korea." Twining said this signal was clear: Allies could count on the US. "The US is really working with South Korea very closely to deter any North Korean threat." And this is a pressing need: North Korea has just revoked its armistice agreement with South Korea.
In the conflict between Japan and China over the Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea, Twining said "the US has stated unequivocally that the US-Japan Security Treaty does cover the Senkaku Islands - meaning that we consider them part of Japanese territory." He said this means that the US would be obliged to help Japan defend them against any foreign attack.
Working with China
The US' relationship to China is ambivalent. On the one hand it is a trading partner and investor; the two countries cooperate on sanctions against Iran; and North Korea's behavior is increasingly being met by Chinese irritation. And on the matters of climate change and energy security, the Chinese are a much-sought - although often disagreeable - partner.
On the other hand, the Chinese have a fundamentally different value system and place international rules in question. For the first time, the US has now publicly demanded the Chinese do something against computer hacking attacks originating from Chinese soil.
"We need a recognition of the urgency and scope of the problem and the risk it poses to international trade, to the reputation of Chinese industry and to our overall relations," Donilon said. "Beijing should take serious steps to investigate and put a stop to these activities … we need China to engage with us in a constructive direct dialogue to establish acceptable norms of behavior in cyberspace."
Ultimately, however, said Elizabeth C. Economy, director for Asia Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York, "the United States is prepared to work with China."
America's Asia policy is therefore based firstly on working with China - and secondly, on strengthening ties with other countries in the region, from Myanmar to Indonesia and the Philippines to India. President Obama, who spent part of his childhood in Indonesia, sees himself as an Asia Pacific president. However, he has his hands full with domestic politics. And that's another reason why the actual initiatives are probably limited.
Even so, the government is optimistic about the TPP: Assistant Secretary of State Jose Fernandez said at a briefing to the foreign press in Washington, "It is our intention to complete that agreement by this year." The trading volume of the eleven countries is 1.4 trillion dollars.
Still a force to be reckoned with in Asia
However, US influence has its limits. The Americans are a stabilizing factor in the region, and as Donilon said: "The United States provided a critical foundation for Asia's rise." But as Economy cautioned: "The United States can't force anybody to work together." Regional differences are something countries like Japan and South Korea will have to solve among themselves.
With the appointment of John Kerry as Secretary of State came speculation that the "pivot to Asia" may now be over. Although Kerry has experience in Asia policy - he worked to open the US to Vietnam - he intends to concentrate on the peace process in the Middle East.
But Asians have no reason to worry, both Twining and Economy said. The US is very able to focus on multiple regions simultaneously. Economy said, "We will continue to see a focus on the Asia-Pacific." Or, as Fernandez put it: "We are a Pacific power, and we're in the region to stay."