Obama´s legacy in Asia-Pacific

20.10.16 Publication:

Most of President Barack Obama´s foreign policy has had to
be reactive to inherited wars, to new civil wars, to new sources of pressure
and instability. But in the case of Asia and the Pacific, he has tried to be
active, to set the agenda himself. The success of that agenda, however, looks
increasingly in doubt.

Under George W. Bush, and thanks to preoccupations in
Afghanistan and Iraq, the United States was perceived by 2008 as having
neglected Asia. Senior officials had failed to attend important summits, and
America seemed to have no coherent strategy in response to the rising power of
China in the region. Even Japan, the USA´s closest security ally, felt ignored.

It took a while, but in 2012 the Obama administration
commenced what it termed a “pivot to Asia�. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton
was a main force behind the pivot, having outlined the case for it in an
article in Foreign Policy magazine
called “America’s Pacific Century� in November 2011. So if she ends up in the
White House, the policy can be expected to continue.

The “pivot”� took two principal forms. First, and most
visibly, the US increased its military deployments in the region, including in
Australia, and commenced high profile naval exercises with many countries,
including India and Japan. Second, it initiated negotiations with 11 countries
in the region, including Japan but not China, for a “Trans-Pacific Partnership�,
essentially a free trade agreement that also encompassed rules for investment
and intellectual property.

Alongside these two initiatives, the Obama administration
intensified its efforts to strengthen its networks of formal and informal
alliances in the Asia-Pacific. Since the 1950s these have been centred on Japan
and South Korea, but also include close ties with Singapore, the Philippines,
India and even America’s old foe, Vietnam.

In Chinese eyes, the purpose of both initiatives was
containment, the word coined in the 1950s to describe America’s policy towards
the Soviet Union throughout the Cold War. The Obama administration would put it
differently: to them, the aim has been to ensure that the interests of America
and its friends are protected and that no single country – for which read China
– comes to dominate the region against the will of the other countries there,
and to thus set the rules of the economic and security game.

Measured by the building and strengthening of networks, the
Obama “pivot� has been a success. At the region’s main annual forum for defence
and security, the “Shangri-La Dialogue� hosted in Singapore by the British
think-tank the International Institute for Strategic Studies, is has become
clearer each year that America is now seen as the good guy and China the
threat. It is a neat reversal of the common criticism of the US during the Bush
administration: China is seen in Asia as the dangerous unilateralist, while
America is the one standing up for international law and multilateral

The trouble is that China has time, and economic realities,
on its side. Unless its economy and political system go through a serious
period of turmoil or collapse, the dependency of Asian neighbours on Chinese
trade, aid and investment is bound to increase. So when it seeks, as over the
past three years, to create its own facts on the ground by building military
facilities on uninhabited reefs in the South China Sea, in contravention of
international law, there is little that its neighbours can, or are willing to,
do in response.

The United States has tried to defend international law, including
a decision in July 2016 by the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague
which condemned China for its territorial violations in a case brought by the
Philippines. It has been praised for doing so, and its decision to sail
warships through the disputed waters to protect rights of freedom of navigation
has been widely supported.

Yet China has simply ignored the court’s decision. And this
month it received an unexpected reward when President Rodrigo Duterte of the
Philippines, the country that had brought the legal case against China in the
first place, suddenly turned against the United States, announcing an end to
military exercises and ordering all US forces to leave the country. He is
evidently angry at US criticism of his brutal crackdown on drug crime. He ended
with a stinging and symbolic phrase: “I can always go to China.�

Meanwhile Obama’s other signature initiative, the
Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), is in trouble. Ratification of the agreement,
which was reached a year ago, is stalled in Congress. At one stage, President
Obama may well have hoped to get it passed during the hiatus between the
November 8th election of his successor and their inauguration next
January, popularly known as the “lame-duck session� of Congress. But fierce hostility
to trade agreements has been a prominent feature of the election campaign, and
even Hillary Clinton has turned against the TPP deal which she originally

This means that President Obama is likely to leave office
with both the main elements of his “pivot� in danger of failure. He can comfort
himself with the fact that he will leave America’s main relationships in the
region – with Japan, Australia, South Korea, Singapore and India – stronger
than when he entered office.

He may also comfort himself with the fact that the previous
President Clinton entered office in 1993 with a trade deal that looked
potentially dead – the North American Free Trade Agreement, with Mexico and
Canada – and yet got the deal passed through Congress during his first year in
office. So a President Hillary Clinton might end up doing the same. Under a
President Trump, however, every aspect of Obama’s Asia policy would be in