“Legacy of the pivot is only partially complete”

An article questions the pivot of Obama, “Barack Obama’s trip to Asia 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 characterised 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 writer argues that “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 presidentrefused to meet with the Dalai Lama”.

The arrogance, naiveity or both of Obama are clearly seen when the author writes that “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, laterrecounted, when Obama was reportedly angered by Beijing’s haughty attitude and its efforts to disrupt his online conversations with the Chinese people”.

The article goes on to mention how “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”.

He rightly points out that “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”.

The author moves to the second part of the article, North Korea, where it “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”.

He ends “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 labour, 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”.

He later concludes “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.

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