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Contrary to popular opinion, the cancellation of President Obama’s trip to the APEC and Asean meetings this week does not sound the death-knell for his pivot to Asia. Far more dangerous to America’s position in the Pacific are looming budget cuts that will result in a minimized foreign presence. The U.S. military has already felt the squeeze and Asian nations are worried that foreign policy during the remainder of Mr. Obama’s final term will focus on Syria and Iran, leaving Asia to its own devices. Without a change in direction from the White House, they may be right.
The president’s cancellation does nothing to materially change America’s commitments to its Asian allies. The U.S. military’s forward bases and hundreds of thousands of personnel in Pacific Command remain. Negotiations over the Trans-Pacific Partnership free trade agreement are continuing. U.S. officials, including both Secretary of State John Kerry and Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel who were in the region last week, still make regular visits.
At the annual “2+2” meeting of Messrs. Kerry and Hagel with their Japanese counterparts, the four leaders agreed to base Global Hawk surveillance drones in Japan, as well as install a second X-Band radar to better track future North Korean ballistic missile launches. For now, plans are on track to rotate U.S. Marines for training through Darwin, Australia and four Littoral Combat Ships in Singapore. In addition, talks on gaining access to bases in the Philippines are high on Washington’s agenda.
The rebalancing moves the administration has made are welcome, but not transformative. Worse, the White House’s rhetoric is overshadowed by the budgetary reality. Cuts in the U.S. defense budget that will total nearly $1 trillion over the next decade have already started to bite. The commander of U.S. Pacific Command, Admiral Samuel Locklear testified to Congress in March that he has had to cut travel and exchanges in the region. Meanwhile, the U.S. Air Force was forced to drop exercises with some of its key Asian partners.
The reduction in training, maintenance, and exercises will only get more severe each year, and America’s military leaders openly talk about a hollow force. In recent testimony, each indicated that they could not be confident of prevailing over an opponent in a major conflict should current trends continue.
The weak point in Mr. Obama’s “rebalance” to Asia has always been that a superpower can’t pick and choose between global regions if it wants to retain its overall influence. It was all but inevitable that a crisis in the Middle East would dominate Mr. Obama’s second term, especially given his failure to deal with Iran’s nuclear program or Syria’s civil war during his first administration. Now, the necessity of focusing diplomatic and military attention on the Middle East has exposed the gap between the White House’s unrealistic expectations in Asia and the reality of limited resources. On top of that, the U.S. government shutdown makes domestic politics his first concern for the foreseeable future.
From that perspective, Mr. Obama is dealing with self-inflicted wounds far more serious than his skipping the annual multilateral meetings in Brunei and Indonesia.
This American drawdown is seen as particularly concerning due to China’s ongoing assertion of its territorial claims in the East and South China Seas. Moreover, the Chinese military continues to modernize, and just this month announced that it had successfully used a satellite to capture another satellite. Thanks to these activities, along with its cyber aggression, China is increasingly seen as a destabilizing element in the region’s security environment.
For now, President Xi Jinping is eschewing the type of public humiliation of other Asian powers that marked the last years of his predecessor Hu Jintao’s rule. Smile diplomacy is back in vogue, as Mr. Xi made clear last week during his first trip to Southeast Asia since taking power. In Malaysia, he and Prime Minister Najib announced a “comprehensive strategic partnership” and plans to treble their bilateral trade by 2017. Mr. Xi also addressed Indonesia’s parliament, signed trade and investment agreements worth over $30 billion, and revealed his hopes that China’s overall trade with the region would reach $1 trillion by 2020.
International relations in Asia are therefore not a zero-sum game. Even Asian countries involved in TPP negotiations, such as Malaysia, will sign new trade agreements with China. None of this will change if Mr. Obama suddenly decided to show up at the Asean meeting. America’s challenge instead is to maintain a robust and entrepreneurial policy in Asia while avoiding a minimized presence due to budget cuts. These cuts do nothing to solve America’s fiscal problems at home and do everything to make it harder to play a global role.
Unfortunately, the president’s insistence since 2009 on cutting the U.S. defense budget, and his reluctance to use his bully pulpit to promote liberal values means that U.S. policy is increasingly one of sound and fury, signifying little. It is this incoherence at the heart of Mr. Obama’s policy that is the great danger. Missing a meeting may well be forgotten, but shedding crucial military capabilities and reducing the country’s ability to play a credible role abroad will have lasting effects.
Mr. Auslin is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington and a columnist for WSJ.com. Follow him on Twitter @michaelauslin.
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