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Global Summits Shine Spotlight on Obama’s Pivot to Asia

October 22, 2014

By John J. Brandon

Less than one week after midterm elections in the United States, President Obama will travel to Asia to attend the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) Forum from November 10-11 in Beijing, and the East Asia Summit from November 13-14 in Naypyidaw, Myanmar. When he last visited Asia in April, President Obama was making up for his absence last year at these meetings because of the U.S. government shutdown. In the view of many Asians, President Obama’s absence had cast serious doubt on whether the U.S. is able to serve as an effective counterbalance to China and that his administration’s “pivot” or “rebalancing” is more rhetoric than substance.

Beijing skyline

Less than one week after midterm elections in the United States, President Obama will travel to Asia to attend the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) Forum from November 10-11 in Beijing, and the East Asia Summit from November 13-14 in Naypyidaw, Myanmar. Photo/Flickr user Michael McDonough http://bit.ly/ZHulqN

As the U.S. began to disengage from wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, this “rebalancing” was supposed to be the Obama administration’s key initiative in foreign affairs. But Washington has been dealing with a plethora of foreign policy problems outside of Asia – from a growing rivalry with Russia, tension between Israelis and Palestinians, and the fallout of the “Arab Spring,” to the rise of the Islamic State, and, most recently concerns by the American public about Ebola proliferating more widely in the U.S. from West Africa. These challenges, coupled with President Obama’s failure to mention Asia in his foreign policy address at West Point in May, have only reinforced skepticism, especially against a backdrop of growing tension in the South and East China Seas and the unexpected collapse of trade talks between the United States and Japan over the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP).

Much is at stake for the U.S. when the president goes to Beijing and Naypyidaw. When the “pivot” was announced in 2010, then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said that the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) was “the fulcrum” of regional architecture in Asia. Despite the perception that the U.S. is not as engaged as much as it should be in the region, the U.S. nonetheless has increased engagement with the Asia Pacific, including launching comprehensive partnerships with Malaysia and Vietnam and forging a new Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement with the Philippines. Moreover, it continues to lend support to the Lower Mekong Initiative (LMI), the region’s only forum for addressing cross-border development and policy challenges facing the five lower Mekong countries: Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, Thailand, and Vietnam. The U.S. also provides counter-piracy support for littoral states around the Malacca Strait and counter-terrorism capabilities in the Sulu Sea involving Indonesia, Malaysia, and the Philippines.

At the same time, there is rising concern in Asia that the Obama administration’s rebalancing exercise continues to be “over-securitized” with not enough emphasis on the importance of economic engagement.

From 1873 to 2007, the U.S. was Southeast Asia’s largest trading partner. Since 2008, China eclipsed the U.S. and continues to do so by an increasingly wide margin. In 2013, China-ASEAN trade reached $400 billion while ASEAN trade with the U.S. was $206 billion. China-ASEAN trade links continue to grow because of regional trade pacts, supply chain integration, and rising incomes. Even China’s trade with Vietnam and the Philippines, countries in which China has contentious territorial disputes in the South China Sea, has increased 22 and 13.8 percent, respectively.

With TPP talks at a stalemate, the U.S. will not be in a position to announce even an “agreement in principle” at either APEC or the EAS. If the TPP was ratified by the 12 member countries, their combined economies would constitute one-third of world trade. However, President Obama lacks trade promotion authority (TPA) from Congress, meaning that Congress must vote up or down on trade agreements without being able to amend such pacts. Given growing opposition from Congress and the American public, President Obama is unlikely to receive TPA. Failure to pass the TPP in 2015 will deprive President Obama of what would be his most valuable economic achievement in the rebalancing effort.

The South China Sea will likely dominate as the key security issue during discussions at the East Asia Summit in Myanmar. While the United States does not take sides in the territorial disputes between claimants (mainland China, the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei, and Taiwan), U.S. policy toward the South China Sea has remained constant since the end of World War II – a policy of stability and freedom of navigation that allows for the safe and secure passage of people, goods, and legitimate economic activity. Southeast Asia is a critical region for commerce and resources, and its waters constitute some of the world’s most important sea lines of communication. $5.3 trillion of global trade transits Southeast Asian waters each year, of which $1.2 trillion is with the United States. But these same waters are also a source of a variety of dangers that threaten the prosperity of local populations and the security of states – from piracy and non-state political violence to transnational crime and environmental degradation. Successful response to these threats requires international cooperation.

When President Obama attends the EAS, he will be making his second visit to Myanmar, a country well known for its decades-long isolation and human rights abuses. Becoming chair of ASEAN this year has helped Myanmar gain political legitimacy and standing in the international community. Although it has been challenging, Myanmar thus far has been adroit in handling the South China Sea dispute in regional fora in the effort to maintain ASEAN unanimity while ensuring sound relations with China. Despite instituting significant political and economic reforms, there remains concern about these reforms backsliding. Myanmar continues to be criticized by the U.S. and other nations for its poor treatment of Rohingya Muslims, whether peace negotiations with armed ethnic groups will be successful, if the military will give up the authority it maintains under the constitution, and if parliamentary elections in 2015 will be carried out freely and fairly.

President Obama will be meeting a concerned audience in Asia that wants concrete evidence of Washington’s continued commitment to the region. Most Asian nations want the United States to continue its long-standing role as the region’s strategic balancer. While Asian nations welcome a rising China that can spur economic growth and development, it does not want to see an aggressive China. This is in the interest of the U.S. and all Asian nations, including China. The challenge for the administration will be how to inject fresh momentum into this strategy and not relegate America’s “pivot” or “rebalancing” to a mere diplomatic slogan.

John J. Brandon is director of Regional Cooperation Programs for The Asia Foundation, based in Washington, D.C. On October 24, Brandon will moderate an Asia Foundation panel discussion in D.C. on Asia’s rising regionalism and issues that remain for achieving regional integration. As part of the Foundation’s “Asian Perspectives Series,” the event will bring together five leading scholars from the region and will be webcast live. Brandon can be reached at john.brandon@asiafoundation.org. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the individual author and not necessarily those of The Asia Foundation.

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