Shadow Government

The one-year review: Highs and lows, but kudos on North Korea

Surprises? The biggest (most pleasant) surprise on Asia has been the Obama administration’s willingness to use pressure on North Korea. After campaigning on a promise to meet with the leaders of nations like North Korea without conditions, the Obama White House has turned out to be quite hard line vis-à-vis Pyongyang. Of course, it would ...

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Surprises?

The biggest (most pleasant) surprise on Asia has been the Obama administration’s willingness to use pressure on North Korea. After campaigning on a promise to meet with the leaders of nations like North Korea without conditions, the Obama White House has turned out to be quite hard line vis-à-vis Pyongyang.

Of course, it would be difficult to miss the obvious failure of Ambassador Chris Hill’s conciliatory negotiating style at the end of the Bush administration — let alone the fact that North Korea responded to President Obama’s initial promises of engagement by detonating a second nuclear device. Still, in the case of North Korea the administration seems to have embraced the premise that there must be consequences for proliferators.

The administration has moved forward smartly with implementation of sanctions under U.N. Security Council Resolution 1874 (unlike the Bush administration’s decision not to implement UNSCR 1718 after the first nuclear test) and thus far the Special Envoy for North Korea has refused to sit down with the North Koreans until they first agree to return to the Six Party Talks. Even the visit of former President Clinton to Pyongyang was done with most of the administration holding its nose and limiting the mission to the humanitarian goal of bringing home two American journalists taken by the North. We will see how long this holds, but for now the administration looks pretty tough.

Praiseworthy?

The Obama administration deserves praise for its selection of an Asia team. There were more than 60 “advisors” on Asia to the Obama campaign (close to the total number of advisors for the entire world working with McCain). Most of these advisors were calling for wholesale changes in Asia policy, echoing the usual canards about the Bush administration’s “unilateralism” and “militarism.” But in the end, the top jobs in NSC, State and Defense were filled by non-partisan centrists and pragmatists who recognized the successes of the Bush administration’s Asia strategy and wanted to tweak rather than redefine the U.S. approach to the region. Better yet, the top officials at State, NSC and DOD are associated with the successes of the Clinton administration’s Asia policy, including the revitalization of the U.S.-Japan alliance and the successful negotiations to bring China into the WTO. The team is professional, knowledgeable and very reassuring to the region.

Constructive Criticism?

The administration deserves criticism on two fronts. The complete lack of a trade strategy leaves the United States without any tools to counter the growth of exclusive regional economic arrangements within Asia. This will become obvious when Obama travels to the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) forum in two weeks and calls for an open and inclusive architecture like his predecessors — only his predecessors actually were bringing something to the table in terms of trade liberalizing agreements with Korea and other countries in the region. The second area of criticism would be the administration’s willingness to pull punches on human rights and democracy. The president’s decision not to meet the Dalai Lama in Washington in August (the first rebuff to the Tibetan Spiritual Leader by a U.S. President in recent memory) was particularly problematic.

Predictions?

The Obama administration will grow tired of China. Obama expanded the Bush administration’s Strategic Economic Dialogue into a Strategic and Economic Dialogue and raised expectations of progress with Beijing on everything from climate change to Iran and North Korea. But in the wake of the financial crisis Beijing sees itself as externally stronger and internally more vulnerable. That is not a recipe for more cooperation with Washington. Chinese support for North Korea’s economy is increasing in the wake of Pyongyang’s nuclear test and China will be relying on coal for 80 percent of its energy no matter how well discussions of climate change cooperation go (and they are not going that well). Then there is the unyielding PLA position on the South China Sea, cyber-security and a host of other security problems that will vex the Obama administration’s China policy over the coming years. Usually, new administrations come into power in Washington having talked themselves into a tense relationship with Beijing during the election campaign and then they adjust to a more centrist and stable relationship with China (true of Regan, Carter, Clinton and G.W. Bush). The Obama administration came in without having engaged in a contentious debate over China policy with McCain, but may now find itself under increasing pressure to be tough with Beijing.

Photo by Korean Central Television/Yonhap via Getty Images

Michael J. Green is senior vice president for Asia at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and a professor at Georgetown University. He served as the senior National Security Council official on Asia policy during the George W. Bush administration. Follow him on Twitter: @JapanChair. @JapanChair

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