Geopolitics are an ever shifting field, and policy must shift with it. But according to Evan Feigenbaum, US officials have “lost the plot” regarding Asia, and are pursuing a grand strategy based on outdated models of the region. Feigenbaum, who delivered the CSCC’s most recent talk in our Future of US-China Relations series, has had an illustrious Asia-focused career across government service, think tanks, and the private sector. In his talk, he called for a reevaluation of US foreign policy toward China, as top US officials have not reacted to an increasingly integrated Asia over the past two decades.
The idea currently driving US policy is that as long as China’s rise is suppressed, the US will continue to thrive. Pursuant to this, the current view splits Asia into three distinct blocs with three distinct strategies: Eurasia, Sub-Continental Asia, and East Asia. But the reality is that Asia is becoming more and more integrated, and because of that, the US has more competition than just that in Beijing. Feigenbaum points to the events of the 2011 East Asia summit, wherein the US was only barely able to tip policies surrounding pan-Asian integration in its favor. He also points to the founding of the Asia Infrastructure Investment Bank in 2014, where the US was entirely unable to stop the strong pan-Asian institution from being founded. Regardless of the US’s preferences, it cannot prevent regional integration.
Furthermore, current US thinking sees itself as having a great economic advantage over Asia. This view is outdated, and the US is losing sway in the region for a variety of reasons. Firstly, the US is shrinking as a source of final demand as Asian consumption rises. Secondly, the US has deliberately chosen to step back from leading economic standard-setting, illustrated by policy choices such as withdrawing from the TPP agreement. Not only do these choices and realities hurt the US’s economic standing, but they erode pillars of public goods in Asia. This destabilizes the region and provides greater opportunities for Chinese-led pan-Asian integration.
The US is, as Feigenbaum puts it, “fighting the map and fighting economic gravity” when it comes to Asian policy. Top policymakers have a narrow view of the region focused entirely on China, and when we ignore the rest of the region and blind ourselves to Asian integration, we only accelerate the rise of a competitor. Current policy needs to be broader, more flexible, and more humble