Whatever happened to Obama’s pivot to Asia?

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The Obama administration’s foreign policy energies are fully engaged in the Middle East — negotiating the Iran deal, sending Special Operations forces into Iraq, supporting Saudi airstrikes in Yemen, working with the Syrian rebels. Whatever happened to the pivot to Asia?

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Remember, the basic argument behind the pivot was that the United States was overinvested in the Middle East, a crisis-prone region of dwindling importance to the U.S. national interest. Asia, on the other hand, is the future. Of the four largest economies, three are in Asia, if measured by purchasing-power parity. As Singapore’s late leader Lee Kuan Yew often told me, “America will remain the world’s dominant power in the 21st century only if it is the dominant Pacific power.”

And yet the United States is up to its neck once more in the Middle Eastern morass. President Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry spend little time in Asia. Few new initiatives have been announced. Despite the deal on “fast-track” authority, the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a trade agreement that was at the heart of the pivot, faces congressional opposition, mostly from the president’s own party. The administration lobbied hard to get its closest allies to spurn China’s new Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, only to be rebuffed by everyone — even Britain.

The stability of the world will not rest on whether the Houthis win or lose in Yemen. (Yemen has been in a state of almost constant conflict since 1962.) It will be shaped by how the world’s established superpower handles the rising one, China. As Harvard’s Graham Allison has noted, of the 15 cases since 1500 where this transition has taken place, 11 times the result was a war.

Most of the attention of the pivot has been focused on deterring China. This is a necessary and important component of maintaining peace and stability. That’s why the United States has wisely and properly enhanced its security cooperation with Japan, Australia, the Philippines and other countries.

But an excellent new academic volume, “The Next Great War?: The Roots of World War I and the Risk of US-China Conflict,” co-edited by Richard Rosecrance and Steven Miller, highlights that, in addition to deterrence, the United States also needs to work hard at cooperation — at integrating China into the global system.

On this front, Washington gets poor marks so far. China is now the world’s second-largest economy — the largest measured by purchasing-power parity. And yet, its voting share in the International Monetary Fund is equivalent to that of the Netherlands and Belgium combined. Congress — mostly because of Republican opposition — refuses to pass legislation that would change this, even though it would not reduce America’s voting share in the IMF.

The Obama administration’s opposition to the Asian infrastructure bank was, quite simply, dumb. The bank is one more way to fund infrastructure projects in Asia — where the need for more money for such projects is immense. If China can’t set up a regional bank to fund bridges, what influence is it legitimately allowed to have? Of course, having chosen to oppose the bank, the Obama administration then ended up with the worst of all worlds — being defeated in its ill-chosen fight.

China has a strategy for now: economic development within the international system and a steadily enlarging sphere of influence in the region. In an interview this week with the Financial Times’ Lionel Barber, Chinese Premier Li Keqiang sounded remarkably conciliatory and cooperative. Yet his government is reclaiming land and building an airstrip on the disputed Spratly Islands, creating what the Pentagon has called “facts on the water,” according to the New York Times.

Washington has a strong hand. It remains the dominant rule-setting power in a way that really has never existed in history. It is militarily in a league of its own. It has more than 50 treaty allies. China has North Korea. But some of this can cause its own problems. Rosecrance points out that allies can be both a blessing and a complication. It was the many smaller allies doing foolish things that dragged the major powers into World War I. The declining Habsburg Empire’s recklessness might well be the most important cause of that war. Could a Japan that is slowly sliding downward (and has a dysfunctional, hostile relationship with China) play a similar role in the future? Rosecrance simply cautions that the United States keep in mind that its interests are never identical with those of its allies.

The Obama administration needs to start believing in its own grand strategy. Let the Iraqis and Saudis feud, let Yemen continue in its five-decade-long civil war, let Iran waste resources in Syria. Washington should focus its energies, attention and efforts on Asia.

© 2015, THE WASHINGTON POST WRITER’S GROUP

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9 Comments

  1. china invasion on south china sea is complete. the next will be the air space on top of it. sooner, it will extend further to the vast pacific from north to south. the plan is already out of the drawing board. they are aware that so called military might of the US is only good as props for hollywood movies. it can’t defeat soldiers in pajamas and soldiers in sandals in any terrain on this planet.
    on economic front everyone knows how much USA owes china. printed dollar may no longer be the best option when china spreads its wings using her currency back up by solid gold? it is now making a big noise and some bff of US are singing the same tune with the chinese. meanwhile, ang abang pinas ay naiipit nang husto habang ang mga kapwa asyano ay litong lito..oil and opium have consumed USA big time! time to wake up joe!!

  2. The US d0en’t understand China; while the Philippines relies 0n the u.s. t0 shape its China p0licy. When the US begins t0 regain c0nsci0usness – the Philippines will be left 0ut in the c0ld.

  3. Its all obamas fault. He is a useless president. I will give you just one very simple example when he first ran for president he said the national debt ( then it was 10.6 trillion dollars ) was unpatriotic of bush to have increased it by 4 trillion dollars after 8 years, but already under obama it has risen 8 trillion dollars. He doesnt call his rises unpatriotic.
    The deal with iran over its nuke power its a bit of a shambles, iran cannot be trusted as we have found out since first ever dealing with them over this issue.
    Now the philippine media in the united states were calling for voters to vote democrat & are again for the next election & its under them that we have these problems & will continue to have them. But the phil-ams will listen to their people & vote democrat. So in part blame your countrymen for being stupid, as usual.

  4. The pivot to asia got bogged down in the deserts of the middle east and the philippines must never rely on the US cavalry coming to its aid, and nor should it. The US badly misjudged chinas initiative on the asian infrastructure bank, and really does not understand asian culture, so will not control the region as it would like, and keep making mis-steps.

    The current foreign policy in the philippines boils down to hiding behind uncle sam, moaning about china, and letting OFW’s fend for themselves. It is simplistic, naive, and outdated.

    It demonstrates a lack of international knowledge or thinking, and is a pig in a poke.

    It also takes little account of 2 strategic realities
    CHINA, and its 3 pronged silk road strategy which has now been elevated to a top priority – Land, sea, and airwaves (internet)
    ASEAN, and the moves to open markets, regional co-operation, and innovation.

    For the philippines to continue a philosophy and a strategy which is protectionist and isolationist is economic suicide.

    Time for the philippines to press reset.
    Time for the US to stop its policy of hegemony

  5. Eddie de Leon on

    Yes, yes, yes. Obama and then the next presidents of the United States must pay more attention to us Asians.

  6. sonny dela cruz on

    This is one thing I like to say, the Americans doesn’t understand the culture of the Chinese people. They think the China government will reform to be more civilized and obey any rule especially the international laws. No sir, China has loan the Federal government trillion of dollars, what does it mean in Chinese culture. I got your neck tight-up, you can’t say NO to what we want to do. I believe China is at war with the United States economically right now. China is trying to weaken the economy of the United States, that is why they want to replace the dollar with their own money globally, they had flooded the American market with products MADE IN CHINA, but nothing in return for American products in China. What they want are commercially manufactured items in their country for their military use. The military alliance of China with the Russians mean something. Beware America, don’t play MADJONG with them. They are very very tricky.

  7. In short the writer is just trying to warn the world that China is a coming military threat in the short term and have to be finished off as such just because Manila have some disputes with China. The other authors quoted by him are merely to auger his warning. But times have changed, history may not repeat itself due to changed circumstances. Even if the US is the sole super military power, so what?? Its not going to whack China. In fact with its military power it cannot even resolve a potato issue with Iran, let alone with China. If China’s claim in the South China Sea is really a threat the rightful complainants have to be the Asean countries, not Manila alone. And after years of Manila’s barking and crying yet they do not attract the majority of the attention of the Asean countries. In fact those barkings and crying are more nuisance, badmouthing and empty of facts.

    • sonny dela cruz on

      You have to understand that China has alsready cross the Philippine line of jurisdiction of 200 miles per Ineternational maritime law. If you are a true Filipino, you should support the cry of most Filipinos.