Has Obama given up on the Asia pivot?


On Oct. 11, 2011, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton wrote an article in Foreign Policy titled "America’s Pacific Century." The article laid out the theory and practice behind the Obama administration’s "pivot" to Asia, an "essential," strategic rebalancing of U.S. focus toward the Pacific.

But what a difference two years makes. On Wednesday, the White House announced Obama’s decision to cancel the last two days of his Asia trip, which was supposed to be a six-day swing through the Philippines, Malaysia, Indonesia, and Brunei, that the White House described as part of Obama’s "ongoing commitment to increase U.S. political, economic and security engagement with the Asia Pacific." While this was precipitated by logistical obstacles created by the U.S. government shutdown, we can’t help but note the irony: on the two-year anniversary of Clinton’s article, Obama will not be celebrating and strengthening relationships with U.S. partners in Asia. In truth, there’s not much to celebrate.

Two years after the pivot, U.S. influence in Asia has diminished. China’s growing military presence and deep U.S. defense budget cuts threaten the longstanding preponderance of American military might in the region. The United States has not signed any new free trade agreements with Asian nations since Obama came to office; nor has it reached any significant diplomatic achievements that could serve to demonstrate and reinforce its role as a Pacific power.

The problem with the pivot is not one of strategy: More robust U.S. engagement is indeed required to take advantage of the opportunities that will arise as trade links throughout the Pacific expand. And the United States needs to channel China’s ambitions to ensure they drive growth rather than instability. But like much of the Obama administration’s foreign policy, the Asia pivot has been more promise than follow-through: a thin veil of spin masking a deep lack of substance.

At the outset, basing the pivot on a false premise undermined its credibility with U.S. allies.  President Obama’s unfortunate and arrogant habit of denigrating his predecessor George W. Bush’s eight years in office extended to his Asia policy. The whole notion that the United States needed to "rebalance" in favor of greater engagement with Asia implied that Bush had abandoned the region.

This is untrue. Bush improved the U.S. relationship with Asia-Pacific nations. In 2007, he signed the world’s largest bilateral free trade agreement, with South Korea. He reached an historic nuclear cooperation pact with India in 2008. Bush forged close personal relationships with many Asian leaders, including Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi and Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. And by initiating the Strategic Economic Dialogue with China in 2006, Bush paved the way for closer economic relations between the two countries.

The significant innovations and successes of his predecessor show just how little Obama’s pivot has accomplished.   

On the military front, the Obama administration has routinely mentioned a Nov. 2011 agreement to cycle 2,500 Marines through Australia as an example of its expanding military footprint in Asia. But that contingent is mere symbolism amid the 130,000 U.S. troops already stationed across the Pacific — and it does not represent an overall troop increase, since it will come from 9,000 troops being redeployed from Okinawa. As a result, this agreement did little to reassure allies — but still managed to elicit Beijing’s ire. In December 2011, Geng Yansheng, a spokesman of China’s Defense Ministry, criticized the Australia plan, saying "we believe this is all a manifestation of a Cold War mentality."

More ominously, $1.2 trillion in defense cuts over the next 10 years will overtake the Australian agreement and undermine the America’s ability to project military power into the Pacific. The cuts will lay off 120,000 troops and likely force the retirement of three aircraft carrier battle groups and ground a third of our combat wings.

On the economic front, Obama has been largely ineffectual. He has failed to corral China’s flagrant theft of U.S. intellectual property, or curb China’s manipulation of its currency.  He’s failed to initiate talks with any Asian countries over new bilateral trade agreements. And it now appears as though negotiations over the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which would be America’s largest free-trade pact, may not meet their December target.

Clinton, Obama’s first secretary of state, at least paid lip service to a U.S. commitment to Asia — but her replacement Secretary of State John Kerry may not even do that. During his February confirmation hearings,  Kerry questioned whether the pivot and its military ramp-up are "critical yet," and voiced concern over how Beijing would react to an increased U.S. presence. With Kerry having shown far more interest in the Middle East than Asia, the pivot may be over before it ever really began. 

Such a sudden lurch away from a policy that was so recently the fulcrum of our global strategy would seriously damage our standing in Asia. To mitigate this damage, the administration should take a number of steps. First, it should prioritize reversing the sequester’s military budget cuts, in order to invest in the naval assets necessary to ensure the United States plays a central role in Asian security. Second, even if he misses the December deadline, Obama should not let momentum behind the Trans-Pacific Partnership falter. He must insulate the U.S. negotiating position from his political base’s protectionist demands — pressure that has slowed trade talks in the past.

Finally, the administration should avoid reverting back to the soft rhetoric of "strategic reassurance" — its initial, ill-defined 2009 policy toward China — which Clinton seemed to think meant allowing U.S. interest in human rights take a backseat to climate change in relations with Beijing. That conciliatory posture shook the confidence of allies who depend on the United States to check China’s more coercive tendencies. 

Obama may not have meant for the curtailment of his trip to be a message to U.S. allies in Asia. But this is the third time Obama has cut an Asia trip short because of domestic concerns. We support Obama’s Nov. 2011 announcement that in the Asia-Pacific region, the United States "is all in." But we’re still waiting for him to make his move. 

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