US President Barack Obama’s first foreign trip since winning a second term highlights Asia’s new centrality to the US’ economy and security. However, Obama’s Asian tour also underscores the main question about US policy in the region: Will the US’ “pivot” to Asia acquire concrete strategic content, or will it remain largely a rhetorical repackaging of old policies?
The US, quick to capitalize on regional concerns triggered by China’s increasingly muscular self-assertion, has strengthened its military ties with its existing Asian allies and forged security relationships with new friends. However, the heady glow of the US’ return to center stage in Asia has obscured key challenges in remaining the region’s principal security anchor in the face of China’s strategic ambitions.
One challenge is the need to arrest the erosion of the US’ relative power, which in turn requires comprehensive domestic renewal, including fiscal consolidation. However, the need for spending cuts also raises the prospect that the US might be unable to finance a military shift toward the Asia-Pacific region — or worse, that it will be forced to retrench there.
The US under Obama has increasingly ceded ground to China, a trend that admittedly began when former US president George W. Bush’s administration became preoccupied with the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. This has spurred doubts about the US’ ability to provide strategic heft to its pivot by sustaining a higher level of commitment in the Asia-Pacific region, where it already stations 320,000 troops. The proposed deployment of an additional 2,500 US Marines in Australia is largely symbolic.
After raising Asians’ expectations of a more robust US response to China’s growing assertiveness, the Obama administration has started to tamp down the military aspects of its pivot, emphasizing instead greater US economic engagement. That change has come as a relief to those in the region who fear being forced to choose between the US and China. However, for the countries bearing the brunt of China’s recalcitrant approach to territorial and maritime disputes, this emphasis raises new doubts about the US’ commitment.
The economic reorientation of the US pivot corrects a policy that had overemphasized the military component and put the US on a path toward conflict with China. It was US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton who signaled a more hawkish US stance on China with her tough talk at the 2010 ASEAN Regional Forum in Hanoi, Vietnam. However, now she is moderating that position by promoting trade and investment during her visits to Asian countries.
Obama is also highlighting the economic aspects of the US’ pivot, portraying his Asia tour as an effort to generate more domestic manufacturing jobs through higher exports to “the most rapidly growing and dynamic region in the world.” Even his historic visit to Myanmar — the first ever by a US president — is as much about trade as it is about weaning a strategically located, resource-rich country from Chinese influence.
The refocus on trade and economic issues has also prompted Washington to promote the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which aims to create a new Asia-Pacific free-trade group that excludes China. Moreover, the US is emphasizing the importance of the East Asia Summit (EAS) and ASEAN, whose summit overlaps with the EAS meeting in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, that Obama will be attending.