Institute for National Strategic Studies National Defense University http://www.ndu.edu/inss
No. 239 April 2009
The United States and the Asia-Pacific Region: National Interests and Strategic Imperatives by James J. Przystup
Notwithstanding the 2008–2009 financial crisis, East Asia today remains the home of the world’s most dynamic economies. In 1990, the region’s share of global gross domestic product (GDP) amounted to 26.5 percent; in 2006, that figure stood at 37.5 percent. In 2006, the GDP growth rate for Asia’s economies averaged 5.1 percent, compared to a world average of 3.9 percent. Driven in large part by China’s economic resurgence and benefiting from an open international trading system, Asia has become an engine of global economic growth. Meanwhile, U.S. trade with the region grew from $300 billion in 1991 to $900 billion in 2006, much of it in higher value-added manufactured goods and services.1 In all likelihood, restructured and revived economies in Asia and the United States will lead the world out of the current global recession. In addition to its longstanding commercial links to the region, the United States maintains treaty alliance relationships with Japan, the Republic of Korea, Australia, the Philippines, and Thailand. For over a half century, this bilateral alliance structure has formed the region’s informal security architecture. The alliances remain of critical importance in addressing the hard security challenges of the East Asia region and provide a firm foundation for multilateral efforts to address the nontraditional security issues there. In addition, the growing number of AsianAmericans has reinforced the long history of cultural interaction across the Pacific, marked by art, architecture, literature, music, and today, manga. The totality of these commercial, cultural, and security ties reflects the enduring nature of U.S. interests in the Asia-Pacific and argues for an active American role in shaping the future of this region. Key to this engagement is a clear understanding of U.S. interests in Asia and the strategic imperatives that will confront the Obama administration’s policymakers.
From its earliest days, the United States has been engaged in trade with East Asia. In February 1784, the Empress of China left New York harbor, sailing east to China, arriving at Macau on the China coast in August of that year. The ship returned to the United States the following May with a consignment of Chinese goods, which generated a profit of $30,000. In 1844, China granted the United States trading rights in the Treaty of Wanghia. The U.S. interest in trade with Asia and the protection of American merchantmen took Commodore Matthew C. Perry to Japan. The Treaty of Kanagawa of 1854 granted access to the markets of Japan, opening the ports of Shimoda and Hakodate to trade with the United States, and provided for the protection of shipwrecked American sailors.
Benefiting from unhampered access, U.S. trade with East Asia rapidly expanded, with China in particular defined as the “market of the future.” But in the last decade of the 19th century, China’s internal weakness, combined with the activities of the imperialist powers, threatened to segment the China market into exclusive spheres of influence. The U.S. response, in the form of Secretary of State John Hay’s Open Door Notes, defined U.S. interests in China as unimpeded access to its markets and, later, support for China’s territorial integrity as the means of assuring that access. Hay’s definition reflected historic American interests in the larger East Asia region dating to the Empress of China and the opening of Japan. Taking into consideration the nearly 225year history of U.S. engagement with East Asia, this essay defines U.S. interests as the following: ■ Defense of the homeland and U.S. territories and protection of U.S. citizens. Today, U.S. forces are engaged across the Asia-Pacific...
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