The United States has long played a leading role in Asia through its networks of security alliances and the economic influence of the U.S.-led Bretton Woods financial institutions. In recent years, however, this has been challenged by the deepening cooperation among Asian states, and particularly the emergence of Asian-led initiatives and institutions to develop connectivity and foster strategic cooperation. The United States now faces a stark choice between remaining a passive spectator to Asia’s ongoing transformation, and adapting its strategy to actively engage with the region. 

Carnegie India hosted Evan Feigenbaum, the vice president for studies at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, and Ashok Kantha, the director of the Institute of Chinese Studies, for a discussion on the role and place of the United States in Asia. The discussion was moderated by Rudra Chaudhuri, the director of Carnegie India. 

DISCUSSION HIGHLIGHTS: 

  • Retreat From Asia: Participants acknowledged that there are profound structural changes taking place in Asia, which have led to tremendous economic growth in the past few decades. They stated that while the United States used to be the primary market for Asian manufacturers, the inter-Asian market has replaced it. Participants maintained that the United States is likely to refrain from multilateral trade deals in the future, due in part to its domestic political constraints. However, this retreat—seen in the U.S. pullout from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), for example—has only led Asian countries to work more closely together.
  • Rise of a ‘Pan-Asian’ Identity: Participants noted the rise of a ‘pan-Asian’ identity as early as the 1990s, when Japan attempted to create an Asian financial institution—a bid that faced pushback from the United States. While this attempt at carving out a pan-Asian institution was blocked by the United States, the participants noted that the rise of such organizations was inevitable. They agreed that while there is greater economic integration in the region today, it would be historically inaccurate to attribute this rise of a ‘pan-Asian’ identity to the rise of China. 
  • Connectivity in Asia: Participants discussed how the development of connectivity in Asia has been inaccurately attributed to the rise of China. They stated that while China has grown at a rapid economic pace in the past few decades, the Asian region was economically connected before China’s rise. As an example, the participants noted the role played by the Asian Development Bank (ADB) in fostering stronger economic relations among Central Asian countries. They further cited the strong ties that exist between India and Japan, through infrastructural projects—such as the construction of the Delhi metro—and common security goals—such as freedom of navigation in the Indian Ocean. Participants concluded that the idea of a connected Asia existed long before the announcement of China’s Belt and Road Initiative. 
  • Next Steps for the United States: Participants noted that while there is greater economic integration in Asia, there is also increasing security fragmentation. They emphasized the necessity for the United States to do more in the region in order to be economically significant, rather than remain a mere security provider to most Asian nations. The participants stated that, in a financial sense, the United States is largely absent in Central Asia, with a diminishing presence in other parts of the continent. They asserted that the United States ought to think about Asia in a much more integrated manner, and invest greater resources and energy in the region. Participants underlined that, rather than reacting defensively to the changes taking place in Asia, the United States should be taking a proactive approach to the region. 

This event summary was prepared by Shreyas Shende, a research assistant at Carnegie India, and Upasana Sharma, a research intern at Carnegie India.