The Legacy of Obama’s “Pivot” to Asia
The president's Asia legacy is not worst in recent history. But it's not the best either.
President Barack Obama heads to China and Laos this weekend for his final visit to Asia. The administration will portray this as a victory lap, asserting that Obama is America’s first “Pacific president” (in fact, Richard Nixon made a similar claim in 1969, while William H. Taft, Herbert Hoover, John F. Kennedy, and George H.W. Bush also spent formative years in the region). The administration will also claim credit for a wave of initiatives that actually started in the George W. Bush administration (the G-20, the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the strategic partnership with India, the Pacific Command force posture changes, etc.). The fact is that there is not all that much new in the “pivot.” On the other hand, Obama’s most vociferous critics will be wrong to argue that the pivot is completely devoid of content. Since 2009, American strategic partnerships have generally expanded in the region, as they did from 2001 to 2008. Any historically informed assessment of Obama’s legacy in Asia should therefore begin by acknowledging that there is more continuity and bipartisan consensus around Asia policy than not.
A more detailed breakdown of Obama’s Asia legacy highlights one significant achievement, one sub-par performance, one lost opportunity, and one dangerous incomplete.
The Obama administration’s significant achievement in Asia has been to establish an enduring framework for engagement with Southeast Asia. Since the Vietnam War, American diplomacy in Southeast Asia has been episodic, often buffeted by more pressing challenges such as human rights or terrorism. Obama’s real “rebalance” is between Northeast Asia and Southeast Asia. He joined the East Asia Summit, which is hosted by the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, and he established his own U.S.-ASEAN summit. Since 2009, U.S. relations have improved with every country in ASEAN other than Thailand (because of the coup there). Yes — much of this was possible because China scared everybody into our arms, and it is also true that the vigor of the policy waned in the State Department’s transition from Hillary Clinton to John Kerry. Nevertheless, the administration deserves credit for putting in place a long overdue framework for engagement with this increasingly important sub-region.
In the management of great power relations in North Asia, the administration has delivered a sub-par performance. The George W. Bush administration handed off strong and generally trusting relationships with all the major powers — China, India, and Japan. Obama will be handing his successor a very tense relationship with Beijing and continuing uncertainty in the Japanese government about U.S. reliability, despite some important developments on security cooperation with Tokyo and a very successful presidential visit to Hiroshima this spring. Exogenous factors contributed heavily to the current problems with China to be sure: The 2008 financial crisis looked to Beijing like the beginning of secular American decline and Chinese President Xi Jinping turned out to be a far tougher counterpart than the mild-mannered Hu Jintao was. But the administration compounded these problems by failing to articulate its bottom line in Asia. In 2009, the president emphasized his intention to respect China’s “core interests” in Asia, to the alarm of American allies. Then, in 2011, after an emboldened China began throwing its weight around, the administration announced its “rebalance” to Asia with new military deployments to Australia, to the alarm of China. Then, in 2013, the administration shook American allies again by walking away from the “red line” on Syria and announcing support for Xi Jinping’s “New Model of Great Power Relations” — a proposed condominium of the United States and China in Asia that looked very much like the earlier pledge to respect China’s core interests.
Obama came into office with a team that thought cooperation on climate change would minimize geopolitical competition, that strategy is about choosing diplomacy and reassurance over war, and that reputational risk would be a deterrent for China. Those assumptions all ignored the fundamental geopolitics of Asia. Fortunately, the story did not end there, and the administration has begun taking some steps to stand up to China’s increasing coercion in the South China Sea. Still, the reactive and constantly changing articulation of American strategic coordinates has weakened the most fundamental pillar of U.S. statecraft in Asia — the steady management of great power relations.
The lost opportunity, it appears, will be on trade. The president will tell his counterparts that he is determined to pass the TPP in the lame duck session, but members of Congress and former U.S. trade representatives (Republican and Democratic) whom I have asked say it will be a longshot. It was bad luck that both the major Republican and Democratic candidates came out against the deal, but it is the administration’s fault that this did not get ratified years earlier. Obama basically campaigned against free trade in 2008 and then delayed moving on the TPP in office because the unions were unhappy he would not support them on card check (a pretty egregious proposal for near automatic unionization). I suspect that Clinton will eventually get back to the TPP if she is elected, but the failure to get this done now will be a big blemish for Obama’s Asia legacy and headache for members of Clinton’s incoming team as they reintroduce themselves to the region.
The dangerous incomplete is North Korea. And here some humility is in order. No administration since the Cold War has handed off the North Korean situation in better shape than they found it, largely because development of nuclear weapons capability has always been completely non-negotiable for Pyongyang. The Obama administration realized the futility of diplomatic deals early on, though it never came up with a policy to replace the previous approach.
This is not the worst Asia legacy or the best in recent history. There are elements to build on but also areas that need to be fixed. Understanding that will help the next administration.
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