A military agreement with the Philippines and easing an arms embargo against Vietnam show that US President Barack Obama’s administration wants deeper security ties with Asia, even as turmoil in the Middle East has undermined its hope of making Asia the heart of its foreign policy.
The “pivot” was intended to be Obama’s signature push in foreign affairs. As the US disengaged from wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, it would devote more attention to the Asia-Pacific region and US economic interests there.
However, it has not turned out as planned. Washington is grappling with the fallout of the Arab Spring, a growing rivalry with Russia and the rise of the Islamic State.
Against this chaotic backdrop, the growing tensions in the South and East China seas and US efforts to counter the rise of an increasingly assertive China appear peripheral concerns — the pivot gets few people in Washington excited these days.
Obama did not even mention it in a sweeping foreign policy speech in May and negotiations on the Trans-Pacific Partnership — the main economic prong in the pivot — have been mired by differences between the US and Japan over agriculture and auto market access, as well as by opposition to the pact among many of Obama’s fellow Democrats.
Yet the administration is still chipping away at its grand plan for a rebalance to Asia that began within months of Obama taking office in 2009, when the US signed a cooperation treaty with ASEAN.
The US has since ended its decades-long isolation of Myanmar, in response to democratic reforms there. It has taken a more strident diplomatic stance against Chinese aggression in the South China Sea and some concrete steps to shore up its allies’ ability to respond. In April, Washington signed a 10-year agreement to allow thousands of US troops to be temporarily based in the Philippines.
Like the Philippines, Vietnam has been engaged in standoffs with China over disputed reefs and islands. Tensions spiked from May to July after China deployed a deep-sea oil rig near the Paracel Islands (Xisha Islands, 西沙群島), which Taiwan also claims.
Chris Brose, who is Republican Senator John McCain’s foreign policy adviser, said that the US still has to convince Asia that the rhetoric of the pivot can become reality.
“The question is not whether America is doing something. Clearly America is,” Brose told a Washington think tank on Friday. “The question is whether what America is doing adds up to a set of actions that’s fundamentally impacting China’s calculus.”
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