Obama’s Failed Pivot to Asia

Jerry Wei, MPP

President Obama’s vaunted “Pivot to Asia,” announced in 2011, was supposed to help counter Chinese aggression, complementing and building on our existing military, economic, and diplomatic commitments in the region.  In the past, China’s leaders have relied on a strategy of national agitprop and aggressive international action to district their disillusioned and restive people. Given that China is facing a massive economic slowdown, as well as handling continuing problems with corruption and military reform, the need for strong partnerships in Asia is greater than ever.

However, this strategy has clearly failed. Major efforts were executed ham-handedly, and our supposed successes undermine the very values we espouse to uphold.  Examples include:

  • Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP): China’s exclusion from TPP is a failure to tie China more closely to its neighbors around the Pacific Rim. Furthermore, China does not seem to view TPP as a major challenge. One Chinese executive told the Wall Street Journal that  by the time TPP comes into effect, domestic demand will more than make up for China’s exclusion from the trade agreement.
  • Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB): The U.S. failed to sideline China’s new Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, China’s challenge to Western international financial institutions. For most of 2014, the U.S. openly criticized the bank and quietly lobbied other governments not to join. Despite its efforts, Britain and then Germany, France and Italy announced that they would join. Critical Asian partners such as Australia, Japan, South Korea, and Thailand have also joined. Having lost the battle, the U.S. then refused to join the 57-country AIIB.  
  • International Monetary Fund and World Bank quotas: The rise of the AIIB can be directly attributed to the fact that China’s voting power in the IMF and World Bank has not matched its economic rise. The fault here lies squarely with a do-nothing Congress that refused to pass a quota reform bill giving China voting power commensurate with the size of its economy until last December.
  • Burmese Democracy: Obama has trumpeted his success in reestablishing ties and opening up Burma to the world. In his rush to claim the slowly-democratizing Burma as a success story, his administration has overlooked increasing communal and government-sponsored violence against the Muslim Rohingya minority. Aung San Suu Kyi, Burma’s democratic lodestar, remains largely silent on the topic to preserve her electability in the upcoming elections.

There have been a few legitimate but small successes, including a greater number of dialogues and lines of communications opened between The United States and China. The newly announced hotline between the two countries on cybercrime will help de-escalate conflict in that arena. The U.S. has also deepened defense cooperation with Australia, which will see 2,500 Marines and warships cycling through its bases.

The Middle East’s Siren Song

The most important failure of the Obama’s legacy in the Asia-Pacific region is simply that of neglect. The never-ending and self-perpetuating crises of the Middle East have drawn his Administration in again and again like a sailor to the Sirens. Obama has devoted enormous effort and attention on his inconsistent and strategically-muddled response to ISIS and on achieving a risky but promising Iran nuclear deal.

Asia On Its Own

Luckily for Pacific security, Asia has stepped up to the plate. Faced with a series of bumbling initiatives on one hand and neglect on the other, Asian countries have taken their security into their own hands:

  • Japan and Korea have worked through their long-running dispute over Japanese crimes during WWII, paving the way for closer military and economic ties.
  • The Japanese Diet introduced reforms that allow the military to deploy abroad in defense of allies, a major shift for the pacifist country.
  • In Southeast Asia, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) announced the ASEAN Economic Community, pulling ten countries into an economic bloc. The bloc includes three countries currently embroiled in disputes with China over the South China Sea.
  • The new Modi government in India has reached out to Vietnam, Malaysia, the Philippines, Australia, and Japan on a wide range of defense and economic issues, and now is perceived as a possible counterbalance to Chinese ambitions in Southeast Asia.

Learning from Failure

As we enter another Presidential election year, policy-makers and politicians would be well-served by examining the Obama Administration’s failures in Asia. The next administration must prioritize Asia by: working actively in the region, fostering closer economic ties, and staying true to U.S. values. Just as it has for NATO allies facing Russia in Eastern Europe, the U.S. should strengthen defense agreements, bolster its military presence in the region, and assure allies that if China escalates tensions, the U.S. will stand by their side.

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