Asia After the Afghan War

July will mark two milestones in America’s relations with Asia: the first US troop withdrawals from Afghanistan, and the 40th anniversary of Henry Kissinger’s secret mission to Beijing. Will the Obama administration’s apparent lack of any explicit Asia strategy mean a general US retreat from Asia?

TOKYO – July will mark two milestones in America’s sometimes-tortured relations with Asia. One is the beginning of the end of the nearly decade-long struggle in Afghanistan – the longest war in United States history – with President Barack Obama announcing the withdrawal of 30,000 US troops from the country by next summer. The other is the 40th anniversary of Henry Kissinger’s secret mission to Beijing, a turning point in the Cold War and the first step on China’s road to modernization – but at the time a huge shock to Asia, particularly Japan.

The looming Afghan withdrawal recalls, at least for some Asians, a third, even more traumatic event: America’s chaotic exit from Saigon in April 1975. Back then, that debacle seemed to presage a broader US withdrawal from Asia, with a war-weary American public seeking the supposed comforts of isolationism. Today’s Asian nervousness exists not only because isolationism appears to be gaining ground once more in America, but also because Afghanistan’s stability remains in doubt, while China’s power is rising in the absence of any pan-Asian consensus or institutional structure.

America did, indeed, turn inward following the fall of Saigon, and its neglect of Afghanistan following the Soviet withdrawal in 1989 led to chaos and Al Qaeda’s near-takeover of the country. So it is not surprising that many Asian leaders are asking themselves what commitments the US will maintain once its troops leave Afghanistan. Perhaps equally important, many people in Asia are also debating whether the region would be able to rebalance itself should the US scale back its military presence.