US President Barack Obama wants Asia to be a growing focus of his foreign policy, but as his second terms begins, success could hinge on his ability to manage hot spots elsewhere in the world and avert a fiscal crisis at home.
Within two weeks of winning re-election, Obama became the first US president to visit Myanmar, signaling his intent to sustain his administration’s “pivot” to the region following the decade-long entanglement in Iraq and Afghanistan.
That is a reflection of Asia’s growing economic and strategic importance. In the past three years, Washington has embroiled itself in diplomacy over the disputed South China Sea, deployed more military-assets to the Asia-Pacific and pushed forward a regional trade pact. It has also put a lot of effort into managing ties with emerging rival China.
Those moves have been broadly welcomed in Asia, but governments question the US ability to sustain its policy.
While US Senator John Kerry, the nominee to replace Hillary Rodham Clinton as US secretary of state, is expected to continue the policy, the Middle East looks destined to demand the lion’s share of his attention.
It will be tough to enhance the US’ profile in Asia in an age of austerity.
In contrast to China, the US can little afford more aid for its allies and to expand its military presence.
Perhaps most critical to US stature in the region will be how it manages its deep political divisions at home. Failure to resolve the long-running standoff between Obama and Republicans over how to manage the US$16.4 trillion national debt weighs on global financial markets.
The Republican-controlled House is set to vote on a temporary measure next week that would permit the government to borrow more money to meet its debt obligations for about three months, although it would not tackle how to reduce the debt.
Without an extension in the debt ceiling, the world’s largest economy could default as soon as the middle of next month. That would likely prompt a downgrade in the US credit rating, leading to higher borrowing costs in the US and elsewhere. It would alarm creditor governments, such as China and Japan, which both hold more than US$1 trillion in US Treasury securities. It could undermine the US’ position as a safe haven for investors and trigger economic turmoil.
Australian Foreign Minister Bob Carr warned after a last-gasp deal at the new year — staving off an immediate tax hike and budget cuts — that the massive US debt has raised questions about the US’ ability to provide world leadership.
However, the trusted ally put a positive spin on things: “America is one budget deal away from resolving the issue of American decline,” he said.
US Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs Kurt Campbell, who is expected to stand down soon, last week said that how the US conducts itself domestically and handles its budget problems “will be at the heart of how Asia views our enduring role in the Asia-Pacific region.”
That standoff looms large as Obama takes the oath of office in the White House for his second term today, ahead of a grand swearing-in ceremony at the Capitol on tomorrow.
Yet for all the divisiveness in Washington, Asia policy remains an area of broad agreement.
Both parties have supported efforts to build stronger ties with Asia to position the US to benefit from the region’s rapid economic growth: cementing alliances in South Korea and Japan, building a strategic partnership with India and expanding ties in Southeast Asia. Most notably, Republicans and Democrats have shown rare unity in backing the administration’s ambitious outreach to former pariah state Myanmar.
The Asia policy initiatives of Obama’s first term could bring with them messy responsibilities in the second term.
The US declaration in 2010 of its national interest in the peaceful resolution of maritime territorial disputes in the South China Sea has boosted Washington’s standing among nations intimidated by China’s assertive behavior in the resource-rich region.
If confirmed as secretary of state, an immediate concern for Kerry will be the rising tension in Northeast Asia, where China, Japan and South Korea all are ushering in new leaders.