Floundering Trans-Pacific Partnership and Obama’s inability to flex military muscle hinders ‘pivot’ with Asia
With US President Barack Obama set to leave office in January after serving two four-year terms, security experts have generally appreciated his policy of a strategic “rebalance” to Asia as a way of countering the rise of China.
Citing Obama’s decision to join the East Asia Summit in 2011 and regular participation by his secretaries of state, Hillary Clinton in his first term and John Kerry in the second term, in the Asean
Regional Forum, an annual regional security meeting, they agree that his most significant legacy for Asia will be deeper and sustained engagement with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations.
“In historical perspective, this is probably the most deliberate and sustained engagement of Southeast Asia since the Vietnam war,” said Michael Green, senior vice president for Asia at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.
This year alone, Obama hosted all 10 Asean leaders in California in February, visited Vietnam in May and hosted Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong at the White House in August before travelling to Laos this week as the first sitting US president to visit the country. Next week, Obama will host Aung San Suu Kyi, Myanmar’s de facto leader and democracy icon, in Washington.
“I think the Obama administration will deserve some rightful credit for reconnecting with Southeast Asia and opening up in a sustained way an engagement strategy,” Green said, noting that Asean needed the United States and Japan as a counterbalance to China.
However some argue the US rebalance, also dubbed “pivot”, to the world’s fastest growing region is “half-measured,” given Obama’s reluctance to use military leverage as part of diplomacy and uncertainties about the fate of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a pending Pacific free trade deal and a major pillar of the rebalance policy, amid rising populist forces in the US election cycle.
“I say ‘half-measured’ in a sense that it has articulated a primary interest in Asia, which I think is correct, but it has not been backed up with a lot of muscle,” said Henry Nau, a professor of international affairs at the George Washington University in Washington.
“If China doesn’t see us backing up a policy of rebalancing with real power, they are not going to pay any attention to us,” Nau said. “And to some extent, that seems to be happening in these island issues.”
He was referring to China’s island construction and militarization of outposts in the South China Sea, parts or all of which are claimed by Beijing and its smaller neighbours such as the Philippines and Vietnam, as well as its act of repeatedly sending official ships around a group of East China Sea islets in an attempt to undermine Japan’s administration over them.
Obama’s repeated warnings have done little to halt China’s attempts to alter the status quo in the South and East China seas. Beijing may further test Washington’s will to see how far it could go by, for example, unilaterally declaring an air defence identification zone over the South China Sea and reclaiming Scarborough Shoal, which Manila claims as its territory.
“Mr. Obama has, more than any other president in recent history, taken the position that you can conduct diplomacy without much military leverage,” Nau said. “He keeps saying that we cannot address every problem as if it is a military problem, but he addresses every problem as if it isn’t a military problem.”
Nau suggested that, whoever succeeds Obama after the November 8 presidential election, the next commander-in-chief needs to immediately re-examine the defence budget so the United States can project a stronger sea power in Asia to curb China’s muscle-flexing in the South and East China seas.
Michael Auslin, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, also calls on White House hopefuls – Clinton, the Democratic presidential nominee, and her Republican rival Donald Trump – to employ a tougher policy toward China.
“If the next president is unable to moderate China’s behaviour and unwilling to risk upsetting relations with Beijing to send a stronger message, then Mr. Obama’s legacy will be an ironic one as the president who made Asia a priority, only to have squandered his country’s position,” Auslin wrote in the September 1 edition of the Wall Street Journal.
While Obama vows to push Congress to ratify the US-led TPP, a trade pact signed by 12 member nations, including Japan but not China, during the so-called lame duck session between the presidential election and his departure from office, his failure to ensure its passage would be a “huge blow” to US credibility and leadership, as White House officials acknowledge.
Apparently wary of a backlash among voters who appear to be riding a wave of protectionism, Clinton and Trump both oppose the TPP.
Calling the pact “a litmus test for US leadership” and “a demonstration of America’s commitment to be a Pacific power,” Ben Rhodes, Obama’s deputy national security adviser, said: “We would be stepping back from that leadership role, we would be ceding the region to countries like China, who do not set the same types of high standards for trade agreements, were we to not follow through the TPP.”
Brad Glosserman, executive director of the Pacific Forum CSIS, a Honolulu-based think tank, agreed and said that Asian governments actually consider the TPP as important as military action – if not more so – when they assess US commitment to the region.
“The opposition of both Clinton and Trump to TPP makes Chinese happy because they know the failure of that trade deal would be a huge blow to the US’ reputation in the region and the prospects for the US playing a lead role in setting international and regional trade rules,” Glosserman said. “Any policy that would unravel or unsettle US alliances in Asia is good for China.”