Fri, May 30, 2014 - Page 1 News List

Asia ‘pivot’ absent from Obama speech on foreign policy

WORLD ROLE:Obama focused on addressing criticism of his approach to global problems, such as Syria, but did not neglect to mention China’s rise


A cadet yawns during the West Point Military Academy 2014 Graduation Ceremony in Highland Falls, New York, on Wednesday. US President Barack Obama proposed a special fund to help other countries combat terrorism during his commencement speech at the US academy.

Photo: EPA

US President Barack Obama laid out a sweeping vision for US foreign policy, but made no mention of what has been a signature tune of his administration’s diplomacy: the “pivot” to Asia.

The concept of the pivot was that as the US wound down its involvement in wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, that would free up military and diplomatic resources to focus on the Asia-Pacific region, after a decade of relative neglect.

Yet in the president’s speech delivered on Wednesday — a day after Obama outlined plans to get US forces out of Afghanistan by the end of 2016 — there was not a single reference to that shift in regional focus.

That was partly due to the purpose of the address. Obama was pushing back against critics who contend that his approach to global problems, such as Ukraine and Syria, has been too cautious and has emboldened adversaries.

He offered a broader perspective on the role that the US should play in international affairs, still leading on the world stage and eschewing isolationism, but less ready to embark on military adventures.

However, Obama made clear that the threat of terrorism that has preoccupied the US since the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks remains an abiding concern. He said as the US reduces its Afghan presence, it can do more to address emerging threats in the Middle East and North Africa.

It is a far cry from the tone Obama struck in another keynote foreign policy speech he made in Australia in November 2011, when he said that in the Asia-Pacific in the 21st century, “the United States of America is all in.”

Despite his administration’s intent to devote more attention to Asia, the rebalance, as the pivot is also known, has struggled for air time. The civil war in Syria, the escalating violence in Iraq, nuclear negotiations with Iran, the Israel-Palestinians peace process and the threat of conflict in Ukraine all compete for Washington’s attention.

That is not to say Asia was entirely neglected in Wednesday’s speech, which was delivered to graduating cadets at the US Military Academy at West Point.

Allies in the region may draw some comfort from Obama’s pointed references to China’s economic rise and military reach and its conduct in maritime territorial disputes.

“Regional aggression that goes unchecked — in southern Ukraine, the South China Sea, or anywhere else in the world — will ultimately impact our allies, and could draw in our military,” Obama said.

Despite stressing the importance of coalition-building before the US intervenes overseas, the president did express a willingness to use military force if necessary if the security of US allies is in danger — comments that could reassure US treaty allies like Japan and the Philippines.

Obama also reiterated Washington’s backing for Southeast Asian nations as they try to negotiate a code of conduct with China to help resolve disputes in the South China Sea, where there are half-dozen claimants.

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