President Obama embarked this week on an eight-day trip to Japan, South Korea, Malaysia and the Philippines. He has tried to reassure the leaders of those countries that his administration is committed to carrying out its signature foreign policy initiative: the rebalance towards the Asia-Pacific.
Obama entered office with the belief that the U.S. had over-invested in the Middle East, particularly in Iraq and Afghanistan. In an October 2011 essay-cum-policy statement, then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton explained that with the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan winding down, the U.S. should “pivot” to the Asia-Pacific. In January 2012, the Department of Defense formalized her recommendation, announcing that the U.S. would “of necessity rebalance” towards the region.
Since then, however, crises abroad and changes in domestic leadership have tested the effort. With the emergence of a civil war in Syria, the administration faced pressure to rebalance back to the Middle East, or at least give equal priority to the Middle East and the Asia-Pacific.
More recently, with Russia’s incursion into Ukraine, the U.S. has focused on partnering with its European allies to prevent additional Russian advances. And the departure of several officials who crafted the rebalance — including Clinton and her influential point person for Asian affairs, Kurt Campbell — have made America’s regional allies question its future.
But it is important to allay those concerns and add renewed focus to the rebalance. The initiative is not, as some critics charge, a ruse for wishing away the troubles of the Middle East. Instead, it reflects the reality that the world’s center of gravity is shifting towards the Asia-Pacific.