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President Barack Obama, with Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and Ambassador Kristie Kenney, left, meet with King Bhumibol Adulyadej of the Kingdom of Thailand, at Siriraj Hospital in Bangkok, Thailand, Nov. 18, 2012.
President Barack Obama is celebrating his re-election by trying to make good on his promised pivot to Asia. Not only is the president in the region for the East Asian Summit in Cambodia—he has also dispatched his secretaries of state and defense on extended visits as well.
Showing up may constitute 90 percent of diplomacy. But at a time of numerous territorial disputes and leadership upheavals, Mr. Obama may have bitten off more than he can chew over the next four years.
The administration’s agenda this month is an unusual start. Unlike traditional trips that include old allies like Japan or major powers like China, Mr. Obama’s Asia 2.0 policy appears to begin with Southeast Asia and smaller nations. Mr. Obama, along with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta, will visit Thailand and Burma before heading onward to Phnom Penh for his second East Asia Summit. Mrs. Clinton has also just visited Singapore, and both she and Mr. Panetta stopped in isolated Perth, Australia, for ministerial consultations.
These itineraries are consistent with Mr. Obama’s stated desire to increase America’s presence across Asia-Pacific (and the implicit U.S. goal of blunting China’s growing influence). But regardless of how this week’s presidential trip goes, visiting smaller nations won’t address the major dangers facing the region.
The biggest challenge Mr. Obama faces is to create a working relationship with new Chinese leader Xi Jinping. Like his American counterpart, Mr. Xi faces numerous domestic problems, foremost among them an economic slowdown. But Beijing, while nervous about the state of affairs at home, appears increasingly confident abroad, and assumes America’s military will be smaller in coming days.
Tension between China and Japan over the disputed Senkaku Islands has raised warnings of conflict from seasoned observers. Tokyo has made clear that it expects American backing in its attempts to maintain control over the islands.
So far, the U.S. has refused to take a stand on the issue of sovereignty, but acknowledges that the U.S.-Japan defense treaty holds for territories under the administrative control of Japan. Should China press the issue, Mr. Obama may not have the luxury of staying above the fray.
Speaking of Japan, it looks likely that the Liberal Democratic Party, which ruled Japan almost uninterruptedly from 1955 through 2009, will be returned to power in December’s elections. This would mean a second chance for former premier Shinzo Abe, who resigned in 2007 after only one year in office. Mr. Abe’s conservative views will win him support of those hoping Japan will do more resist China’s growing power. But they may also inflame an already tense situation.
Moreover, just like Messrs. Obama and Xi, Mr. Abe will be focused on urgent economic issues, such as reversing the 3.5% drop in GDP last quarter. With so much attention to domestic concerns in both China and Japan, all observers should worry that these governments’ ability to navigate foreign crises–and attendant nationalist fervor –is taxed.
Korea is another headache for the Administration. After being outmaneuvered and embarrassed by new leader Kim Jong Un over February’s failed missile and nuclear agreement, Mr. Obama has to reassess his North Korea strategy. Does the U.S. want to put more pressure on Pyongyang, or possibly re-enter negotiations? Even on this question the U.S. risks being outmaneuvered again: All contenders for December’s South Korean presidential elections have indicated a willingness to move away from current President Lee Myung-bak’s hard line and consider a revived version of the Sunshine Policy that gave credibility to Kim Jong Il in the 1990s.
Human rights concerns will further complicate many components of Mr. Obama’s wide-ranging Asia approach. At the Halifax International Security Forum last week, for instance, Sen. John McCain criticized the President for rushing to visit Burma before the extent of its political reforms become clear, and also for meeting with Cambodia’s authoritarian prime minister, Hun Sen.
Mr. Obama seems to be gambling that more can be done to promote democracy and human rights by engaging publicly with repressive regimes than by maintaining quiet pressure. Yet organizations such as the Washington-based Human Rights Watch, which just released a new report on Cambodia’s repressive government, fear that the Administration’s actions will fail to match its words.
In all diplomatic areas, Mr. Obama will need more than rhetoric to reassure allies and warn adversaries that America will expand its role as an Asian power. The President has riskily bet his foreign policy legacy on transforming a region where tensions among nations seems to be growing, not lessening.
Meanwhile, conflict elsewhere will further endanger Mr. Obama’s pivot, if not render it misguided—a pitfall suggested this week when rockets fell on Israel as Mr. Obama prepared for his Southeast Asia swing. A nuclear crisis with Iran, or a wider Middle East war, will absorb Mr. Obama’s energies in some form this term, leaving his laudable Asia vision unfulfilled.
Mr. Auslin is a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington and a columnist for wsj.com. Follow him on Twitter @michaelauslin.
Obama, now in Asia, has four more years to realize his risky bet on the region. But strategic headaches abound.
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