International Relations The United States and Asia
Richard Ellings, Joshua Ziemkowski
  • LAST MODIFIED: 28 August 2019
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199743292-0263


The United States’ experience with Asia goes back to 1784. Over the subsequent two-and-a-third centuries scholarly research grew in fits and starts, reflecting historical developments: the growth of US interests and interdependencies in the region; the wars in Asia in which the United States fought; the ascendance of the United States to international leadership; and the post–World War II resurgence of Asia led by Japan, then the four tigers, and most dramatically China. The definition of Asia evolved correspondingly. Today, due to strategic and economic interdependencies, scholars tend to view it as incorporating Northeast, Southeast, South, and Central Asia and Russian Asia as well as relevant portions of the Pacific and Indian Oceans. The most recent US National Security Strategy (White House 2017, cited under Contemporary US-Asia Relations: General) reconceives the Asia-Pacific as the Indo-Pacific, stretching “from the west coast of India to the western shores of the United States” and constituting “the most populous and economically dynamic part of the world” (pp. 45–46) The first Asia scholars came to prominence in the United States during World War II, and the Cold War strengthened the impetus for interdisciplinary area and regional studies. Through the middle and late Cold War years, social scientists and historians concentrated further, but they increasingly looked inward at the development of their separate disciplines, away from interdisciplinary area studies as conceived in the 1940s and 1950s. While area studies declined, barriers between academia and the policy world emerged. Many scholars disapproved of the Vietnam War. “Revisionists” in the international relations, foreign policy, and area studies fields held that US policy and the extension of global capitalism were conjoined, suppressing both economic development and indigenous political movements in Asia and elsewhere. Simultaneously, behavioral science and postmodernist movements in policy-relevant fields developed. In the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s, Theory and methodology overtook the old approach of area-specific research that tried to integrate knowledge of the history, culture, language, politics, and economics of particular nations or subregions. Theory and methodology prevailed in research, tenure, and promotion. Policy-relevant studies became viewed as “applied” science. Another factor was money. Already under pressure, area studies was dealt a major blow at the end of the Cold War with cutbacks. Research on policy issues related to the United States and Asia increasingly came from think tanks that housed scholars themselves and/or contracted with university-based specialists. In recent years due to the rapid development of China and the urgent challenges it presents, interest in policy-relevant topics has revived on campuses and in scholarly research, especially in the international relations and modern history of the Indo-Pacific and the politics, economics, environment, and foreign and military affairs of China. Interest has revived too in the subregions of Asia, much of it driven by Chinese activities abroad.

Reference Resources

World power is concentrated in the Indo-Pacific. Asia by itself accounts for 60 percent of the world’s population and over 30 percent of global GDP. It leads in GDP growth rates and drives global energy demand. China has the world’s largest industrial sector by far and boasts the second-largest (to only the United States) and fastest-growing defense budget. India, Japan, and South Korea also rank in the top ten in military spending. Asia is home to five of the nine nuclear weapons states (China, India, North Korea, Pakistan, and Russia) and three latent nuclear powers (Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan) that possess advanced civil nuclear programs. Finally, territorial disputes and other flashpoints throughout the region have the potential to escalate into great-power conflict. The CIA’s World Factbook is a useful online almanac containing demographic, geographic, and other data on Asia, while the National Security Archive at George Washington University is a trove of historical documents on US policy toward Asia. The International Monetary Fund’s World Economic Outlook Database and the World Bank DataBank are authoritative resources for data on GDP, trade, and other economic indicators in Asia. The World Energy Outlook, published annually by the International Energy Agency and available online, is a reliable resource for energy data and projections. For data on military spending and other defense indicators, the Military Balance database managed by the IISS Military Balance and the SIPRI Military Expenditure Database managed by Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) are essential tools for Asia watchers, while the Nuclear Threat Initiative is a good starting point for research on nuclear proliferation in the region. The Maritime Awareness Project developed and managed by the National Bureau of Asian Research tracks incidents in the East and South China Seas, two of the most critical flashpoints in the region and the world. Finally, Comparative Connections from Pacific Forum offers triannual analysis of key developments in the Asia-Pacific.

  • Comparative Connections. 1999–.

    Online journal published triannually by Pacific Forum. Each issue presents a regional overview and analysis of key bilateral relationships in the Asia-Pacific.

  • IISS Military Balance.

    Online database from IISS that provides yearly country data across a range of defense indicators. IISS also publishes an annual volume, The Military Balance, that assesses the military capabilities and budgets of 171 countries.

  • Maritime Awareness Project.

    Web portal managed by the National Bureau of Asian Research to track developments in the East and South China Seas. Features an interactive map of the East and South China Seas with reports on key incidents and tools for viewing territorial claims, oil and gas reserves, and other key features, as well as analysis and backgrounders.

  • National Security Archive.

    Online collection of more than 100,000 documents covering US policy that is especially useful for researching US policy toward Asia during the Cold War.

  • Nuclear Threat Initiative.

    Online resource for research on nuclear proliferation, including country profiles and information on arms control and nonproliferation treaties and organizations.

  • SIPRI Military Expenditure Database.

    Database managed by SIPRI that tracks the military spending of countries since 1947. The database is updated annually.

  • World Bank Databank.

    Resource managed by the World Bank that provides access to over fifty-five databases covering a wide range of indicators.

  • World Economic Outlook Database.

    Database managed by the International Monetary Fund that contains data since 1980 for key economic indicators, as well as projections looking ahead two years. Data is drawn from the World Economic Outlook Report released in April and September–October.

  • World Energy Outlook.

    Annual publication from the International Energy Agency that presents data, analysis, and projections for energy markets.

  • World Factbook. In Central Intelligence Agency. Washington, DC.

    Almanac produced by the CIA that provides information across a range of economic, demographic, geographic, historical, political, military, and other indicators for 267 world entities, including every country in Asia. The online edition is updated on a weekly basis.

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