The United States, a Pacific power itself, has maintained an interest in Asia for more than a century. World War II, however, established the United States as the preeminent military power in the Pacific, albeit with a fair share of challenges. The Soviets fought to expand their influence throughout the region, drawing the United States into several large-scale Cold War conflicts from Korea to Vietnam. More recently, an unpredictable, nuclear-armed regime in North Korea threatens the region. But the biggest foreign policy questions of the twenty-first century concern China’s rise and how the United States will seek to respond to this emerging global power.
Spanish-American War Establishes United States as Pacific Power
Prior to the late nineteenth century, the United States was largely a regional, rather than global, power. It exerted its influence throughout the Americas, but refrained from creating colonies overseas as many European powers did. But as the United States grew both militarily and economically, it sought not only to consolidate its power in the Western Hemisphere but also to pursue trade opportunities with Asia. It saw Spain, with Asian and American colonies, as a power in decline, and in 1898 the two countries went to war. After just a few days of fighting, the Spanish conceded defeat and transferred control of their Caribbean and Pacific colonies—namely Guam and the Philippines—to the United States. The war inaugurated the United States as an overseas imperial power and established it as a permanent political and military influence in the Pacific.
Pearl Harbor Attack Brings United States Into World War II
By 1941, Europe was deep in the chaos of World War II. But even as German bombs pummeled London, the United States was reluctant to intervene on behalf of its friends in Europe. Americans overwhelmingly opposed getting involved in a costly overseas conflict, especially one so soon after the trauma of World War I. But when a Japanese surprise attack on the United States’ Pearl Harbor Naval Base killed more than two thousand Americans on December 7, 1941, public opinion toward the war immediately shifted. The next day, Congress declared war on Japan. Over the next four years, tens of thousands of U.S. troops fought and died in the Pacific theater, confronting Japanese forces on hundreds of islands across the Pacific Ocean. The massive numbers of troops, ships, and arms sent to the region during the war built the infrastructure for the United States to become the preeminent military power in the Pacific for decades to come.
Hiroshima and Nagasaki Usher In New Nuclear World
As fighting in the Pacific theater intensified, with thousands of deaths on both sides each day, the United States developed a weapon so destructive that it would compel the Japanese to surrender. On August 6, 1945, the United States dropped an atomic bomb on the Japanese city of Hiroshima, and another bomb three days later on Nagasaki. Though exact numbers are unknown, some historians estimate that 140,000 people in Hiroshima and 70,000 people in Nagasaki died immediately. Thousands more lost their lives in subsequent years from birth defects and cancers caused by the nuclear fallout. Japan surrendered just six days after the bombing of Nagasaki, bringing about a long-awaited end to World War II’s Pacific theater. However, the use of nuclear weapons (the only times they have been used in war) ushered the world into a new era, one in which countries that possessed nuclear capabilities wielded unprecedented power.
U.S. Hub-and-Spoke Alliance System Resists Communism
Soon after World War II, the United States entered the Cold War, during which U.S. policymakers focused on countering the Soviet Union and the spread of communism. When Mao Zedong brought a Communist government to power in China in 1949, the United States quickly established several bilateral alliances in Asia to prevent the further spread of communism in the region. The United States allied with Japan (1951), Australia (1951), the Philippines (1951), South Korea (1953), Taiwan (1954), and Thailand (1954) in what was dubbed the hub-and-spoke system. These bilateral agreements meant that if an allied country were attacked, the United States would be obligated to come to its defense, even through the use of nuclear weapons. Although the United States walked back its mutual defense treaty with Taiwan in 1979, it has maintained its other alliances to this day.
Domino Theory Influences U.S. Involvement in Vietnam
When U.S. policymakers looked at a world map in the 1950s and 1960s, one area of immense concern was Southeast Asia. Mao Zedong’s Communist government had just taken over China, and U.S. policymakers feared that neighboring countries would follow suit, falling one by one to communism. This so-called domino theory contributed in large part to the U.S. decision to send troops to Vietnam, where Soviet-backed guerillas in the country’s north fought U.S.-backed government forces in the south. The war ultimately involved some three million U.S. troops, caused just as many deaths (though mostly of Vietnamese civilians), and ended in a communist victory. As policymakers feared, coinciding civil wars also brought communist governments to power in neighboring Laos and Cambodia. But in the United States, the largely unpopular war caused civil unrest and eroded the public’s trust in the government.
Nixon’s Trip to China Redefines Relations in Region
After the Chinese Civil War, the United States refused to recognize Mao Zedong’s Communist government. Instead, Washington cooperated with the newly exiled government in Taiwan, a strong anti-communist ally. But in 1972, Richard Nixon shocked the world by becoming the first sitting U.S. president to visit mainland China, in an effort to establish relations between the two countries. Nixon, one of the most prominent anti-communist politicians of the Cold War, suddenly warmed up to Mao’s China for several reasons. First, Nixon hoped to split China from the Soviet Union, another communist country, to weaken the Soviet Union’s position in the world. Second, in the midst of the Vietnam War, Nixon sought to isolate North Vietnam from its patron, China. And finally, Nixon believed that working with China was necessary to prevent it from threatening its neighbors. Ultimately, the United States formally recognized Beijing (and cut ties with Taiwan) in 1979 under President Jimmy Carter, ushering in an era of cooperation between the two countries.
Expectations Versus Reality After China Joins World Trade Organization
For decades, China was the world’s only large economy that was not a member of the World Trade Organization (WTO), an institution that sets international trade rules. The United States strongly encouraged China to join, both to provide American exporters increased access to a billion-person market and in hopes that WTO membership would make China a more open society. When China finally joined in 2001, U.S. manufacturers did gain access to China’s enormous market. But hopes for fundamental reforms quickly faded, just as they did following Nixon’s trip to China decades prior. Rather than bring in democratic ideals along with Western goods, the Chinese Communist Party used the country’s rapid economic growth to further legitimize and solidify its hold on power. It expanded censorship and surveillance systems and increased repression of minorities and government critics. Given this outcome, U.S. policymakers continue to question the extent to which it is possible to work with China in a mutually constructive way.
U.S. Troops Defend South Korea as North Develops Nuclear Arsenal
Fighting during the Korean War may have ended in 1953, but the United States never left the peninsula. Today, South Korea is home to the largest U.S. overseas military base, hosting nearly thirty thousand U.S. troops. Given that North and South Korea are still technically at war, these troops continue to protect South Korea, a U.S. ally, from potential threats. In 2006, the importance of these troops rose dramatically when North Korea successfully tested its first nuclear weapon. The United States views North Korea’s nuclear arsenal as a national security threat given that its missiles are capable of striking the U.S. mainland. But the United States’ options to respond are limited. With thousands of North Korean artillery pieces pointed straight at South Korea’s capital Seoul—a city of over twenty million—any preemptive U.S. military action against the north could end in disaster.
Intentionally Ambiguous Taiwan Policy: Successful, But Can It Last?
In 1979, the United States moved to establish diplomatic relations with the People’s Republic of China (PRC), in the process severing its formal ties to the Republic of China (ROC), commonly known as Taiwan. At the same time, Congress passed the Taiwan Relations Act (TRA), which made clear that the United States still had unique commitments to Taiwan and would continue to have strong ties with it. Over the past four decades, the United States has continued to sell Taiwan advanced weaponry, and it maintains an office that provides unofficial U.S. representation in Taiwan. While the TRA states the United States would “consider any effort to determine the future of Taiwan by other than peaceful means...of grave concern to the United States,” it never clarified whether the United States would actually come to Taiwan’s defense if it were attacked. This ambiguity was intentional. If the United States had clearly promised to defend Taiwan, Taiwan’s leaders might have been more likely to provoke China and trigger a war. On the other hand, if China could be sure that the United States would not intervene to protect Taiwan, there would be little stopping it from attacking the island. Intentional ambiguity has worked successfully over the last forty years to allow the United States to maintain relations with both the mainland and Taiwan, and to ensure that neither side disrupts the status quo. Recently, however, things are looking less stable. Some experts project that Taiwan could eventually seek independence, an unacceptable outcome for China. Others fear that China may become more aggressive toward Taiwan to distract attention from its slowing economic growth. On the U.S. side, many believe boosting relations with Taiwan would send China a strong and necessary message. As these dynamics shift, it is unclear how long the status quo can continue.
What Does China’s Rise Mean for the United States?
China’s rise raises the question of whether it will integrate itself into the liberal world order that Western powers helped create in the wake of World War II or whether it will seek to reshape the world in its own image, creating new institutions that embody its values while dismissing human rights and democracy. The Bill Clinton and George W. Bush administrations tried to bring China into U.S.-led institutions like the World Trade Organization in hopes that it would become a responsible stakeholder. Recently, though, public opinion in the United States has shifted. Many Americans see China’s ever-restricted internet, disregard for human rights in places like Xinjiang, and unwillingness to abide by international law in the South China Sea as causes for concern. Most recently, the Donald J. Trump administration labeled China a “strategic competitor” and has imposed tariffs on nearly all Chinese imports. Developing a strategy for China’s rise will be one of the most critical U.S. foreign policy challenges of the twenty-first century.