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The latest bad news for President Obama’s Asia policy at first doesn’t seem to have much to do with Asia. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid last week announced he will not allow the Senate to consider Trade Promotion Authority, or “fast track” legislation.
Fast track would allow the White House to negotiate trade deals that would then be guaranteed an up or down vote in Congress with no scope for amendments. Mr. Reid was motivated as much by domestic political concerns as by anything else in nixing a fast-track bill. But his decision also upends years of work on the Trans-Pacific Partnership multilateral trade deal. Any deal arising from those talks now faces an uncertain future in Washington.
The episode is a revealing commentary why Mr. Obama’s pivot to Asia is on the rocks. In short, the problem is that the White House promised too much, assumed its rhetoric alone would sell the deal, and showed little appetite for the politicking required to execute a complex strategic shift.
Much of the blame for Mr. Reid’s trade action must be laid at the doorstep of the Oval Office. Both congressional supporters of free trade and business leaders openly bemoan how little time Mr. Obama has personally invested in such a crucial matter.
In other ways, too, the pivot is falling victim to a combination of distraction and disinterest in Washington. TPP was supposed to be the economic leg of the rebalance tripod, while an increased military presence and renewed political engagement formed the other two supports. Those other two legs of the tripod aren’t particularly sturdy, either.
Lack of a coherent security strategy has allowed China to take the initiative in the waters and skies of East Asia. Beijing’s decision to establish a controversial air defense identification zone over a large part of the East China Sea last November led to little more than a subdued Washington response from a White House that seemed less concerned than its Asian allies.
Likewise, China’s recent demands that fishing boats in the South China Sea identify themselves to its patrol boats have been met with near-silence from the Americans. The U.S. Navy’s announcement last week that it will drop down to just two aircraft carriers deployed globally raises new concerns about the U.S. ability to live up to its manifold commitments around the world and respond to unforeseen crises.
And Mr. Obama seems to grow less focused by the day on Asia’s dangers. It was bad enough that he chose to skip last year’s major Association of Southeast Asian Nations meetings due to domestic budget battles back home. Now Secretary of State John Kerry is prioritizing Middle East issues. Washington seems almost entirely missing in action as America’s top two allies in Asia, Japan and South Korea, are barely on speaking terms, while Chinese newspapers openly muse about war with Japan.
The real danger for Washington is that it becomes seen as a paper tiger. The Obama administration has never made clear just what its goals are in Asia. Is it to promote democracy and liberalism? That certainly doesn’t seem to be high on the list, given the failure to confront Chinese human rights abuses or link together other democracies. Is it to contain China? Such words will never pass the lips of anyone in Washington, though everyone knows that deterring Chinese adventurism was the impetus behind the pivot in the first place.
Instead, Washington is revealing itself as a status quo power, hoping that things don’t get worse while failing to come up with any compelling rationale for its continued presence. The idea of keeping open the sea lanes doesn’t rouse an American public that has seen no threat to free passage on the high seas since 1945.
Meanwhile America’s alliances, except for that with South Korea, seem outdated and geared more to the 1950s than the 2010s. Even a China that is far more assertive and coercive does little to rile up a war-weary U.S. public that doubts that Beijing would be so stupid as to try to unilaterally change borders through force.
Everyone knows that their iPhones are assembled in China, or that Beijing and Tokyo own close to $2 trillion worth of U.S. Treasurys. But the average U.S. citizen is unconvinced that it is worth American blood, and maybe not even the continued expense of American treasure, to keep Asia stable and safe. They question why rich allies like Japan and South Korea don’t do more to play a regional role. They resist the idea of fighting over rocky outlets in far-away seas.
Little wonder, then, that when it comes to related areas such as free trade, Mr. Obama struggles to articulate a case for pro-Asia policies such as fast-track trade authority. Having failed to persuade voters and members of his own party on a broader vision for America’s relationship with Asia, it’s well-nigh impossible to sell the components of such a policy. In this way, TPP is just the latest, indirect, victim of Mr. Obama’s penchant for sound and fury, signifying nothing.
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