Shadow Government

How the New Republican Congress Can Strengthen Obama’s Pivot to Asia

Just days after the Nov. 4 U.S. midterm election transformed the American political landscape by handing control of Congress to Republicans, President Barack Obama will land in Asia for a series of summits with regional and world leaders. The timing is significant: Washington’s new political constellation and the president’s ability to move foreign friends and ...

Mark Wilson/Getty Images
Mark Wilson/Getty Images

Just days after the Nov. 4 U.S. midterm election transformed the American political landscape by handing control of Congress to Republicans, President Barack Obama will land in Asia for a series of summits with regional and world leaders. The timing is significant: Washington’s new political constellation and the president’s ability to move foreign friends and adversaries alike on key issues will define his last two years in office after recent rough patches at home and abroad. Here are five things Obama can do to turn weakness into strength over a week shuttling from the Nov. 10 Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation forum in Beijing and the subsequent East Asia Summit in Myanmar to the G-20 leaders’ meeting in Australia on Nov.15 and 16.

(1) Leverage the new Republican majority in Congress to do a deal on trade. The Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), if implemented, would liberalize one-third of global trade and boost the world’s big economies outside of Europe. But final negotiations between the U.S. and Japan have broken down — in part because Tokyo does not want to make difficult concessions as long as Obama lacks Trade Promotion Authority (TPA) from Congress to fast-track approval of any international agreement. For his part, the president has not sent a TPA bill to Congress because most Democrats would vote against it.

Following Republican wins on Capitol Hill, a president with the midterm elections behind him no longer needs to worry about exposing Democrats to a difficult vote; he will now naturally need to work with Republicans to get this and other deals done. In Asia, Obama should announce his intention to request trade-approval authority from the new Congress as soon as it convenes in January. He can then use his trade mandate in Washington to push the TPP deal across the finish line with partners in Asia. He might also agree to liberalize U.S. energy exports, which Japan and other allies crave and which is a Republican priority on the Hill. These would add historic accomplishments to a "pivot" that has been more rhetorical than real.

(2) Promise to work with the new Congress to restore the military ballast behind the "rebalance" to Asia. A majority of Americans is anxious that the country’s adversaries around the world are multiplying even as its defense resources are shrinking. Obama is currently overseeing a reduction in U.S. military spending of a cool trillion dollars — with half those cuts proposed by his administration and the other half imposed by the across-the-board budget sequester that he agreed (wrongly) with Congress in 2011 after failing to secure a deal on a rational budget.

As various U.S. secretaries of defense and military commanders have warned — and as the official National Defense Panel Review recently made clear — these defense cuts now threaten to hollow out American military power as multiple conflagrations envelop the Middle East, Russian revanchism redraws the map of Europe, and Chinese assertiveness grows in Asia. At the coming summits, Obama should commit to working with the new Republican majority in Congress to end the sequester and provide the resources the U.S. military requires to execute national strategy. This will be music to the ears of America’s Asian friends and allies and could encourage greater Chinese prudence in the exercise of its power.

(3) Rally regional support for the clear message that Chinese military adventurism puts Asia’s economic miracle at risk. As APEC host, China has organized the summit around a series of initiatives to nurture regional economic growth and connectivity. But long-term progress in these areas will not be possible if China continues to assert unilateral claims to international waters and airspace in the South and East China seas — and to back these claims up with the threat of force. Regional prosperity will suffer if China pursues its strategy of pushing America’s armed forces out of international waters and airspace near the Asian mainland, creating a sphere of influence that erodes the security and sovereignty of Japan and other neighbors.

As the head of Indonesia’s armed forces, General Moeldoko, said on Oct. 28 in Singapore, China must not use its "great force" to "create instability in the region." The warning echoed the growing view in Asia and the U.S. that China endangers not only America’s interests but those of every Asian power by threatening to overturn the existing, pluralistic regional order and replacing it with a Sinosphere imposed at least partly through force of arms.

(4) Join G-20 host Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott in "shirt-fronting" Russian President Vladimir Putin over his military aggression in Europe. After militants backed by the Russian army in eastern Ukraine used a Russian-made missile launcher supplied by the Russian military to shoot down Malaysia Airlines Flight 17, killing Australian and other innocent civilians, Abbott vowed to dispense with diplomatic politesse and "shirt-front" Putin, using a rugby term to aggressively confront another player.

With Putin present at the summit in Brisbane, Obama should join Abbott in rallying G-20 leaders around the principles that great powers do not invade their neighbors, annex the territory of sovereign states, or arm militias seeking to overthrow a legitimate government next door. Indeed, while the G-20 leaders will focus on stoking global economic growth, they might note that Russia’s economy is shrinking — and that its recent behavior demonstrates the opposite of reliability as an energy supplier or destination for trade and investment.

(5)  In Myanmar for the East Asia Summit (EAS), join with other Asian democracies to support a free and fair election in 2015. Myanmar’s fragile political and economic opening could be throttled by an election next year that lacks a level playing field and cannot be contested by the country’s most popular politician, Aung San Suu Kyi; she is excluded from running under the constitution imposed by the former military junta. Obama should join Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Indonesian President Joko Widodo, and other leaders in signaling to their EAS hosts that Myanmar’s long-delayed economic transformation requires inclusive politics and the impartial rule of law.

The leaders of China’s one-party state may be uncomfortable with this message. But as seen recently in Hong Kong and regularly in Taiwan, people in Chinese societies want political choice and public accountability no less than any other culture. It was partly to escape China’s smothering embrace that Myanmar’s leaders began opening their country to the world several years ago. A bad election in 2015 could slam shut the door on the genuine gains produced by reform, harming the economic interests of all the country’s trade and investment partners — including China. Coming off the defeat of his own party in the U.S. Congressional elections, Obama is well-placed to explain to his hosts in Myanmar that democracy involves not only winning elections, but sometimes losing them.

A version of this article appeared in the Nikkei Asian Review.

Daniel Twining is president of the International Republican Institute. Prior to joining IRI, Twining was Counselor at the German Marshall Fund of the United States. The views expressed in his articles for FP are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of the International Republican Institute.

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