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 institutions.

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 championed.

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 tatters.