The Unfinished Legacy of Obama’s Pivot to Asia

The gridlocked TPP trade deal. Reclaimed islands in the South China Sea. North Korean nukes. How will history judge President Obama’s rebalance to Asia?

BEIJING, CHINA - NOVEMBER 12:  Chinese President Xi Jinping (L) accompanies U.S. President Barack Obama (R) to view an honour guard during a welcoming ceremony outside the Great Hall of the People on November 12, 2014 in Beijing, China. U.S. President Barack Obama pays a state visit to China after attending the 22nd Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) Economic Leaders' Meeting.  (Photo by Feng Li/Getty Images)
BEIJING, CHINA - NOVEMBER 12: Chinese President Xi Jinping (L) accompanies U.S. President Barack Obama (R) to view an honour guard during a welcoming ceremony outside the Great Hall of the People on November 12, 2014 in Beijing, China. U.S. President Barack Obama pays a state visit to China after attending the 22nd Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) Economic Leaders' Meeting. (Photo by Feng Li/Getty Images)

President Barack Obama’s trip to Asia this week marks the final lap in his acclaimed “pivot” or “rebalance” to Asia. The narrative of this policy, as trumpeted by current and former administration officials, is predictably positive — expounding the bold but careful execution of a strategy from Day One in the Oval Office. However, the real story may cast a less shimmering glow across the Pacific. A combination of inattention, surprise, and mistakes characterized the early years of Asia policy under Obama. Despite this inauspicious beginning, the administration reacted well to each of these obstacles, and these midcourse adjustments culminated in the pivot. The legacy of the policy, however, may ultimately be out of the president’s control as it rests in the hands of Congress and the next president.

The Asia that Obama expected when he took office was not the Asia that he got. Confronted with a global financial crisis, two wars, and policy priorities of climate change and health care reform, America’s first president with roots in the Pacific did not exactly have the luxury of looking East. The priorities for Asia were not laid out in any formal “pivot” document largely because the goals, based on my many conversations with Obama’s Asia team, were modest: 1) deeply engage China; 2) balance this with a strong alliance with Japan; 3) address the North Korean problem; and 4) re-evaluate free-trade agreements. In each case, the White House got slapped down.

Obama wanted to implement a new cooperative strategy that offered strategic security reassurances to Beijing as it encouraged the country to partner with the United States in solving common global problems. The conciliatory language embedded in Obama’s November 2009 speech (i.e., that he did not seek to contain China and that Beijing was central to Washington’s global agenda) led journalists to write of a new “G2” strategy. As evidence, they pointed to the fact that the administration did not approve arms sales to Taiwan in its first year in office, and the president refused to meet with the Dalai Lama.

A new G2 relationship with China had to be balanced by strong alliance relations, however, and so Obama placed continued faith in the U.S.-Japan alliance. To strongly signal this, he sent his secretary of state to Tokyo for her first foreign mission and welcomed the Japanese prime minister as the first foreign head of state to the White House, all within one week in February 2009. Obama wanted to deal with one of the most vexing problems in the region by extending the unclenched fist to North Korea, penning a personal message through Special Representative for North Korea Policy Stephen Bosworth (the contents of which are still unknown) to move forward with high-level, bilateral denuclearization negotiations. Finally, the politics of his party compelled the president to call a timeout on all trade deals, most significantly for Asia, putting the Korea-U.S. FTA (KORUS) on hold, along with ratification of two other Latin American agreements (Panama and Colombia).

Events in the first 18 months of Obama’s presidency undermined each of these objectives. In the case of China, Beijing disappointed America’s G2 policy by not delivering on climate change at the 2009 Copenhagen summit (it would do better in Paris in 2015); moreover, it launched what would become an unprecedented set of territorial claims in the East and South China Seas. The president’s disillusionment with the policy was evident as early as November 2009, as his principal Asia advisor, Jeffrey Bader, later recounted, when Obama was reportedly angered by Beijing’s haughty attitude and its efforts to disrupt his online conversations with the Chinese people.

More than China, however, the biggest strategic surprise in Asia was domestic-political change in Japan. The displacement of six decades of pro-U.S., conservative Liberal Democratic Party rule with three progressive prime ministers (Yukio Hatoyama, Naoto Kan, and Yoshihiko Noda) not only undermined implementation of existing base agreements but also halted ongoing military cooperation in Afghanistan. Amid this domestic political churn, the country reverted inward following the March 2011 tsunami and nuclear crisis in Fukushima — effectively cutting Japan loose as the U.S. strategic anchor alliance in Asia. North Korea challenged Obama with an April 2009 ballistic missile launch and Memorial Day nuclear test the following month. Even after Obama’s personal letter to the North Korean leader at the end of 2009, the regime responded with submarine and artillery attacks on South Korea in 2010 and a nuclear test on the eve of the president’s State of the Union address in 2013. And while Asian leaders showered Obama with niceties during his first presidential trip to Singapore for the 2009 APEC Leaders summit, the Southeast Asians, Northeast Asians, Mexicans, Chinese, and Russians all pelted him with criticisms about the lack of a trade policy.

Rolling With the Punches

Presidencies are remembered not for their plans coming into the Oval Office, but for how they react to the surprises thrown their way. In this regard, Obama responded with worthy midcourse adjustments. The White House’s critical but unseen coordination with the Japanese government during the Fukushima meltdown, followed by the more public Operation Tomodachi recovery project and the return of the LDP to power under Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, helped to restore the reservoir of trust in the alliance. In North Korea, Obama transitioned from engagement to containment, helping to erect a comprehensive multilateral sanctions regime. And while unsuccessful with Pyongyang, he demonstrated positive and historic diplomatic advances with Myanmar, Vietnam, and Laos.

The White House elevated relations with other partners like South Korea and Australia, both of whom were willing to contribute on signature Obama projects like climate change, nuclear security, and global health. On trade, starting with the National Export Initiative in the 2010 State of the Union speech, Obama engineered an astounding turnaround on trade that linked the nation’s economic recovery and job creation to export promotion, eventually leading to the passage of KORUS and the championing of the 12-member Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). Perhaps most important from the Asian perch, Obama just gave more “face time” to Asia. He broke the tradition of one annual trip to Asia after the United States joined the East Asia Summit in 2011, and went beyond the typical Northeast Asia circuit to Indonesia, India, and Australia as part of a larger G20 strategy that incorporated Asia. The current (and last trip) to Asia for Obama was the 11th of his presidency, the same as Bill Clinton’s 11 and more than George W. Bush’s eight. These adjustments would eventually aggregate to the “pivot” as announced in a speech to the Australian Parliament in 2011.

As much as the administration would like to take a victory lap in Asia, the legacy of the pivot is only partially complete. And it is on the China account where there remains much work. On the one hand, the administration responded well to its initial disappointment with G2 by returning “normalcy” to its relations with China in Obama’s second year. The president stopped refusing to meet with the Dalai Lama, and it resumed authorizing arms sales to Taiwan. More generally, it implemented a nuanced strategy balancing pockets of competition and cooperation with Beijing that resulted in significant agreements on climate change in Paris, maritime risk reduction protocols, counterproliferation (Iran and North Korea), and cybersecurity.

Any Obama official will recite the number of hours the president and National Security Advisor Susan Rice have spent with Chinese President Xi Jinping in Washington; Sunnylands, California; Beijing, and elsewhere to build the type of Kissingerian relationship with the Chinese that could lead to such deals. Yet these accomplishments are bookended by continued Chinese land reclamations and military infrastructure building in the South China Sea, and aggressive patrolling in the East China Sea despite international opprobrium and U.S. freedom of navigation operations. Thus what Americans see as a principled strategy, Beijing associates with a “new model of great power relations” that assigns Beijing a sphere of influence and military advantage in Asia in return for Chinese support of Washington’s key global issues.

The Pyongyang Problem

Moreover, North Korea remains a stain on the pivot legacy. Under Obama, North Korea has conducted an unprecedented three nuclear tests and 72 major kinetic and missile provocations. By comparison, there was one nuclear test and 19 provocations during Bush’s two terms. North Korea’s nuclear capabilities will have evolved during the span of the Obama presidency from a fledgling program to a stockpile of as many as 35 nuclear bombs and potentially a survivable deterrent. While the pivot’s defenders might argue that little more could have been done to stop China or North Korea, historians are often unkind, associating arguably unavoidable outcomes with negligent policy.

Under-resourcing the pivot remains one of the often-cited criticisms of the policy, as the United States operates in an era of budget sequestration. This extends not just to big-ticket military items such as the Navy’s 60-40 asset rebalance to Asia and the deployment of more capable weapons platforms to the Pacific, but also to inexpensive cultural and educational programs. The 100,000 Strong program (to reach that number of Americans studying in China) constitutes the pivot’s encouragement for young Americans to learn more about Asia. However, while recent polls show that over 70 percent of Americans in the 18- to 24-year-old demographic see Asia as important to their future, the U.S. Department of Education in the last grant cycle (2014-2017) cut in half the number of Title VI federal grants to American universities to teach about Asia.

Yet, the pivot’s legacy ultimately will be determined by ratification of the TPP. The 12-member free-trade pact, the first to include the world’s second- and third-largest economies, is not just important for business. As a high-standards agreement it has the potential to affect more than just tariffs, reaching deep into member countries to create conformity on labor, the environment, food safety, intellectual property, cybersecurity, the digital economy, development, and other standards. If China were to join the TPP, conformity with these clauses would have a transformative strategic effect on the nature of the Chinese state. Though a distant outcome at the moment, it is not implausible.

At her Georgetown speech on the pivot on Nov. 20, 2013, Rice invited China to join. Even Beijing’s mild interest in the TPP would go a long way toward undercutting the oft-stated criticism that the pivot’s primary accomplishments — exemplified by the Navy’s 60-40 rebalance to Asia, U.S. Marines in Darwin, and military agreements with the Philippines and Vietnam — amount to a thinly veiled containment strategy against China.

During Obama’s swing through Asia this week, he will get more questions about the TPP than he will care to answer. Unfortunately, the fate of Asia’s most significant new institution is beyond his control and now in the hands of an uncooperative Congress and two presidential candidates who oppose the deal. Historians undeniably will give Obama credit for the strategic priorities his presidency gave to Asia, but the president may indeed find himself in another campaign as a private citizen to ratify the TPP, and thus complete his unfinished legacy in Asia.

Photo credit: Feng Li/Getty Images

Victor Cha is a professor at Georgetown University, a senior advisor at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, and the author of Powerplay: The Origins of the American Alliance System in Asia. Twitter: @VictorDCha

Trending Now Sponsored Links by Taboola

By Taboola

More from Foreign Policy

By Taboola