The Asian Glass Ceiling: America’s Diplomatic Dilemma

The Asian Glass Ceiling: America’s Diplomatic Dilemma

For the past decade, United States foreign policy has been characterized by its relationship with the Middle East. That relationship’s roots began in 1919, when Woodrow Wilson made the United States a key player by using his League of Nations to establish the now defunct Ottoman Empire’s colonial boundaries. Franklin D. Roosevelt’s hosting of Ibn Saud, King of Saudi Arabia, on the USS Quincy in 1945 was another watershed moment. It forged an influential partnership between Saudi Arabia and the United States, where the Saudis sold inexpensive oil worldwide in exchange for American protection. Middle Eastern oil still dominates US-Middle Eastern relations today. An additional focus on protecting United States national security led to the spending of millions on military interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan during the Bush administration.


Unlike past administrations, the Obama administration places less emphasis on allocating military and diplomatic resources to the Middle East. It instead pushes for a “pivot to Asia,” or a reorientation of the United States’ foreign policy towards the Asia-Pacific region. Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who initially oversaw the Obama administration’s pivot to Asia, states that the Asia-Pacific region “boasts almost half the world’s population. It includes many of the key engines of the global economy… [and] is home to several of our key allies and important emerging powers like China, India, and Indonesia”. A 2015 International Monetary Fund report on economic growth in the Asia-Pacific found that it accounted for less than 30% of the world’s economy in 2000. That number increased in 2014, when the Asia-Pacific accounted for 70% of the world’s economy. As a result, the Asia-Pacific region represented two-thirds of global growth in 2014 and is predicted to soon surpass the rest of the world in economic growth.


Because of Asia’s role as a world powerhouse, strengthening the United States’ relationships with existing and emerging powers in the region is paramount. Asia alone accounts for 60% of the world’s population, and is the focal point for global issues like nuclear proliferation and climate change. In addition, increased engagement and diplomacy in Asia gives the Unites States an opportunity to check China’s growing influence.


China is carving out its place in the Asia-Pacific region both geographically and economically. From 2014-2016, it reclaimed at least 1,170 hectares of land in the South China Sea, a region where the United States Navy is very active. Its increasing maritime presence in the East China Sea causes numerous territorial disputes with its neighbors, especially Japan. In June 2015, China constructed natural gas rigs along a border it shares with Japan. Tokyo was outraged and officially stated that “the Government of Japan once again strongly requests China to cease its unilateral development and to resume negotiations as soon as possible on…the June 2008 agreement in which Japan and China agreed to cooperate on the development of natural resources in the East China Sea”.


Another notable territorial dispute between China and Japan centers on eight uninhabited islands lying east of mainland China and southwest of Japan’s Okinawa. The Japanese call them the Senkaku islands, while the Chinese call them the Diaoyu islands. Both value the islands because of their proximity to important shipping lanes, fishing grounds, and oil and gas reserves. The islands’ location between China and Japan is also strategically important. Although the islands are controlled by Japan, China’s repeated incursions into the contested territory threaten its national security.


The Obama administration’s actions in recent years reflect the United States’ strong commitment towards deepening its influence in Asia and China. The 2010s ushered in a period of unprecedented communication with China, which culminated in the high-level U.S.-China Strategic and Economic Dialogues (S&ED). The yearly dialogues began in 2009 and are designed to help the two powers find common ground on global challenges, economic issues, and strategy. 2016’s S&ED focused on contested territories in the South China Sea and China’s right to establish air defense identification zones, or publicly defined areas where unidentified aircraft are liable to be interrogated or intercepted for identification before they cross into sovereign airspace.


The United States’ participation in the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) is another action that will affect Asia’s economic balances and alliances. Other countries involved in the TPP include Japan, Malaysia, Vietnam, Singapore, Brunei, Australia, New Zealand, Canada, Mexico, Chile and Peru. As a whole, they account for 40% of the world’s GDP, 26% of world trade, and about $28 trillion of the world’s trade and business investments. The TPP is the largest regional agreement in history, one which notably does not include China. The pact’s main goal is to strengthen economic ties between member countries by lowering tariffs and encouraging trade.


Japan and the United States account for 60% of the TPP’s economic benefits, and have taken the lead on TPP negotiations. President Barack Obama states, “Partnership would give the United States an advantage over other leading economies, namely China.” The United States could determine the future global economy’s rules, which challenges China both economically and strategically. Furthermore, countries such as Vietnam will be more economically tied to the West and thus less dependent on China.



Theresa Dinh