A three-part plan for Obama’s pivot to Asia

April 25, 2014

President Obama embarked this week on an eight-day trip to Japan, South Korea, Malaysia and the Philippines. He has tried to reassure the leaders of those countries that his administration is committed to carrying out its signature foreign policy initiative: the rebalance towards the Asia-Pacific.

Obama entered office with the belief that the U.S. had over-invested in the Middle East, particularly in Iraq and Afghanistan. In an October 2011 essay-cum-policy statement, then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton explained that with the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan winding down, the U.S. should “pivot” to the Asia-Pacific. In January 2012, the Department of Defense formalized her recommendation, announcing that the U.S. would “of necessity rebalance” towards the region.

Since then, however, crises abroad and changes in domestic leadership have tested the effort. With the emergence of a civil war in Syria, the administration faced pressure to rebalance back to the Middle East, or at least give equal priority to the Middle East and the Asia-Pacific.

More recently, with Russia’s incursion into Ukraine, the U.S. has focused on partnering with its European allies to prevent additional Russian advances. And the departure of several officials who crafted the rebalance — including Clinton and her influential point person for Asian affairs, Kurt Campbell — have made America’s regional allies question its future.

But it is important to allay those concerns and add renewed focus to the rebalance. The initiative is not, as some critics charge, a ruse for wishing away the troubles of the Middle East. Instead, it reflects the reality that the world’s center of gravity is shifting towards the Asia-Pacific.

At least three points should guide the rebalance for the remainder of Obama’s tenure and for future administrations.

1. The Asia-Pacific must be a priority — regardless of other crises. 

Since World War Two, a major challenge of U.S. foreign policy has been to ensure that day-to-day crisis management does not prevent the government from addressing major geopolitical shifts. Because the United States has limited focus and resources, it must prioritize certain countries, regions and threats.

While crises come and go, the Asia-Pacific will continue to be significant. The region currently accounts for 24 percent of global military spending and 33 percent of the world’s population. Both of those figures will continue to grow.

If the U.S. gets distracted by putting out fires, it will miss the opportunity to shape the region that will have the biggest impact on the global order.

2. The rebalance should involve the entire region, not just China.

China’s rise was an important driver of the administration’s decision to rebalance to the Asia-Pacific, for good reason. America’s partnerships in the region — especially with longtime allies such as Japan and South Korea — are necessary to counter the Chinese perception of declining U.S. influence and dissuade China from using coercion or force to settle its territorial disputes.

But part of revitalizing U.S. leadership in the region involves boosting its engagement in ways that have little, if anything, to do with China’s rise.

Over the past several years, these efforts have included working with Indonesia to combat terrorism; cooperating with India on anti-piracy and climate change efforts; and assisting the Philippines and other countries after disasters such as Typhoon Haiyan. China’s neighbors should not feel that the U.S. is using them to manage China’s influence.

3. The U.S. should focus on advancing its interests in the Asia-Pacific region, not containing China.

The U.S.-China relationship will shape the Asia-Pacific’s future more than any other factor. While both countries hail the progress their relationship has made in recent years and recognize the importance of forging “a new type of relationship,” they continue to clash.

The U.S. rejects the legitimacy of China’s self-declared maritime border (the “nine-dash line”) and calls on China to settle its territorial disputes in accordance with international law. It also strengthens its diplomatic and military relationships with China’s neighbors. But their disagreements should not be exaggerated. The U.S. is not trying to contain China.

Indeed, more than any other country, the U.S. was responsible for ending China’s diplomatic isolation and facilitated its integration into the global economy, laying the foundation for its rapid growth over the past 35 years. Today, the U.S. plays the central role in protecting the maritime commons through which China receives vital commodities.

The U.S. must continue to engage China and strengthen the two countries’ relationship. In addition to being the largest foreign holder of U.S. debt, China is America’s second-largest trading partner and third-largest export market.

China also supplies the largest proportion (29 percent) of foreign students to U.S. universities. Some of those students, with immersion in America’s higher education system and exposure to its values, may well be in the top echelons of China’s leadership two or three decades from now. The U.S. needs China’s support to combat climate change, nuclear proliferation and other global challenges.

The United States should take steps to diminish Chinese concerns about its intentions. It should, for example, encourage China’s participation in the Trans-Pacific Partnership and the formation of trade pacts between China and its neighbors. It should reject any attempts by those neighbors to contain China, and resist any temptation to make them “choose” the U.S. over China as their long-term strategic partner.

But building trust is a two-way street. The U.S. and China should try to increase their economic interdependence, which helps to limit their competition. They should also take small but sustained steps to reduce the tensions between them.

Advancing the rebalance to the Asia-Pacific will be challenging, as crises in other parts of the world continue to demand U.S. attention. But if the United States places that region’s evolution at the heart of its foreign policy, it may have a greater opportunity to shape the world order than it has had in 25 years.

PHOTOS: U.S. President Barack Obama smiles next to South Korean President Park Geun-hye at a joint news conference at the Blue House in Seoul April 25, 2014. REUTERS/Larry Downing 

U.S. President Barack Obama (L) is welcomed by Japan’s Emperor Akihito and Empress Michiko (R) upon his arrival at the Imperial Palace for the welcoming ceremony, in Tokyo, April 24, 2014. REUTERS/Kimimasa Mayama/Pool 



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