To South Koreans, and probably to most Asians, the evolution of Washington's rhetoric on its Asia policy has been ambiguous. The Obama administration's declaration that the United States will return, pivot, or rebalance to Asia raised some very natural questions about U.S. policy toward the region. Did the United States ever leave? If it did, then when did it first arrive in Asia? Is this the first return or the second? Why did the United States leave, and why is it now coming back? What messages does Washington want to deliver and to whom? Of course, we all know that the United States never really left Asia; rather, only the relative strategic importance of the region has changed, at least in the minds of U.S. policymakers. The right question should be, then, what does the United States want to accomplish under this newly announced rebalancing strategy?
To the United States, the Asia-Pacific is the land of both opportunity and risk. It is the region with the most vibrant economies and the fastest-growing markets, and it will witness a major power shift that may pose a threat to the status of the United States as a global leader. In a time of severe budget deficits and a relative weakening of U.S. power, East Asia in particular will be critical for efforts to revitalize U.S. leadership in both positive and negative senses. Specifically, the United States will strive to make full use of the region's economic potential while preventing China from shaping East Asia according to its own terms and rules.
To the Republic of Korea (ROK), the U.S. rebalancing strategy appears to have three core components. First is the policy approach to China. In international politics, when the power gap becomes narrower between two states, the established power will generally not wait until the rising power reaches power parity. According to power transition theory, when a rising power reaches the 20% power range of the established power and the former is dissatisfied with the existing rules of the game, there will be a high probability of hegemonic war. In this regard, a hegemon will tend to act first and intervene, presenting itself as a revisionist power.1 After attempting to set up more cooperative relations with China after the economic crisis [End Page 13] in 2008, which created the confusing rhetoric of a group of two (G-2), the Obama administration seems to have decided to be clearer about the importance of building relations with China. Borrowing from Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's remarks at the United States Institute of Peace in March 2012, the United States wants to challenge the historical trend of hegemonic clashes by proving that an established power and a rising power can coexist. "New forms of relations among great powers" is emerging as a slogan, but there are still requirements for great-power relationships. China should respect the already-established rules of the game. Because the global order has been maintained through the United States' hegemonic role in providing global and regional public goods, China cannot be a leader without respecting these rules and fulfilling its burden-sharing commitments as a responsible stakeholder. Soft-power requirements are frequently emphasized as well, implying that a great power can acquire the status of hegemon only by proving itself as a leader in the areas of human rights, free trade, and democracy. The game now is not just about concrete issues concerning military power or economic influence but also about creating and obeying the rules of the game. The question of who will be the legitimate rule-maker transforms the U.S.-China rivalry into a sort of meta-game—i.e., a game about the rules by which to play the real games. In this respect, the United States has returned with the intention to lead the game as the rule-maker and the provider of collective goods.
The second component of the U.S. rebalancing strategy is economic. Since 2000, Asia has become the United States' largest source of imports and its second...