September 8, 2016
by The Editorial Board, New York Times
President Barack Obama in Laos–Farewell Asia–Thank You, Mr. President
Laos provided fitting closure to President Obama’s 11th official trip to Asia, which ends Thursday. The stop, the first by an American president, acknowledged the devastation caused by American bombing during the Vietnam War and the millions of unexploded bombs that remained in Laos after the war. That visit and the Asian tour was the last of Mr. Obama’s broad efforts to strengthen engagements with countries in the region.
There is significant unfinished business in Mr. Obama’s Asia policy, including the 12-nation Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal that appears gridlocked in Washington and an expanding North Korean nuclear weapons program that he and other world leaders have failed to halt.
But Mr. Obama has made headway in reassuring Asian nations that the United States intends to remain a stabilizing presence in the region, as it has been for decades, and to serve as a counterweight to China’s growing power and increasing assertiveness, especially in the South China Sea.
In addition to opening a new chapter with Laos, Mr. Obama established relations with Myanmar when the former military dictatorship of that country agreed to move toward a democratic system. Ties were expanded and an arms embargo against Vietnam was dropped. New agreements on military bases for American forces were negotiated with the Philippines and Australia.
Building on work done by the Clinton and Bush administrations, Mr. Obama has brought Indian-American relations to a new level of cooperation, culminating in last month’s defense agreement, which had been under negotiation for a decade. The United States has vastly expanded military exercises with most of these countries as well as expanding its sale of weapons, including a missile defense system to South Korea.
All of this took hard diplomatic work, but the driving force pushing these countries into closer ties with America has been China’s growing military capabilities and its brazen efforts to claim most of the South China Sea as its own, transforming reefs and rocks into artificial islands with airstrips and military structures.
When Mr. Obama took office, he hoped to cooperate with China on solving global problems. By 2011, China’s more aggressive posture and a belief that America’s economic future lay in Asia led the Obama administration to announce plans to intensify engagement with other Asian nations. As the South China Sea tensions have heated up, the administration has played a restraining role in defending America’s commitment to freedom of navigation by sending warships into that strategic waterway. It has also urged China and other claimant countries, including the Philippines and Vietnam, to work out a peaceful solution, but serious provocations by China continue.
In some instances where interests converge, China and the United States have made important contributions, including working together on the 2015 Iran nuclear deal and formally committing to ratifying the Paris accord on climate change.
As he prepares to leave office, there is little expectation that Mr. Obama will be able to end the threat from North Korea, which is now estimated to have enough fissile material for as many as 21 nuclear weapons. China, the North’s main food and fuel supplier, refuses to apply the kind of pressure that might make a difference. There are other concerns about Mr. Obama’s policy, including his playing down of human rights issues in China and Laos and his willingness to sell more weapons to Asia, which risks a new arms race.
Mr. Obama and most Asian leaders believe that the Trans-Pacific Partnership, by promoting deeper economic ties with other member nations, is central to his Asia policy. And despite opposition from both presidential candidates and many lawmakers, administration officials believe they will be able to persuade Congress to approve it.
Regardless of whether that happens, China’s aggressive moves in the South China Sea will increasingly dominate the future of the region and will present a complicated challenge for Mr. Obama’s successor to manage.