Obama’s Pivot to Asia Policy: It’s a Solid Double

September 16, 2016

Obama’s  Pivot to Asia Policy:It’s a Solid Double

by Jeffrey Bader, Brookings Institute


On rare occasions, international issues are resolved by a dramatic, decisive development. Much more often, progress is incremental. As United States President Barack Obama has said, an administration hits more singles and doubles than home runs. This has certainly been the nature of the United States’ recent achievements in Asia.

Image result for Obama and Susan Rice in Laos

Unlike the Middle East, which is in seemingly permanent turmoil and crisis, or Europe, whose unity and institutions are threatened, Asia is economically dynamic and generally stable. It is the fastest growing region in the world, the home of many of the companies and much of the technology driving the global economy, and the source of hundreds of billions of dollars in trade and investment.

Obama believed US interests lay in deeper engagement in a part of the world marked by success stories rather than failed states, much as throughout US history its deepest overseas ties have been with a prosperous and dynamic Europe. That has meant neither lazy affirmation of the region’s status quo nor efforts at destabilising transformation. It has required the right balance in dealing with a China whose growing economic, military and political strength is viewed with anxiety by many of the region’s peoples and as a potential strategic rival by the United States.

Obama’s policy towards China has built on the efforts of every presidential administration since Richard Nixon and is grounded in several fundamental principles. These include accepting the increased influence of a China that plays by international rules, building an extensive network of connections with Chinese elites and ordinary people, and providing assurance to the region of the enduring nature of the US’ security commitments. The US also aims to maintain a formal framework of multilateral cooperation encompassing the United States, China and various regional states.

Major achievements have included the establishment of democracy in Myanmar; the US’ decision to join the East Asia Summit and begin efforts to turn it into a significant regional security forum; and the measurable strengthening of security relationships with Japan, South Korea and the ASEAN nations.

Image result for obama and china

Obama with Putin and Xi –What’s next with the next POTUS?

With China, Obama has taken steps to improve cooperation and transparency, along with measures to strengthen the security of the United States and its regional allies. The United States and China have concluded military-to-military agreements designed to avoid incidents on the high seas and in international air space. The Obama administration has worked with China to successfully freeze Iran’s nuclear weapons program, place caps on greenhouse gases and halt cyber theft of US companies’ intellectual property.

Image result for obama and duterte

The United States has also ramped up its naval presence in the South China Sea and, for the first time, comprehensively laid out its principles there — which were largely validated by the 2016 Permanent Court of Arbitration ruling on the China–Philippines dispute. It has overseen a transfer of some of the US’ most advanced naval and air force systems to the Pacific, and it has reaffirmed US defence assurances to Japan covering Japanese-administered islands in the East China Sea challenged by China.

With President Obama having just held his last official meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping, there are two principal challenges to the generally positive trajectory of US policy towards Asia.

The first is the continuing difficulties in managing and reacting to China’s rise. Will China address territorial conflicts peacefully in the South China Sea, cooperate in rolling back North Korea’s nuclear weapons program, build a normal relationship with Japan and manage its differences with Taiwan? Will China work towards a politically sustainable trade and investment regime and dismantle nationalist and mercantilist policies that encourage other countries to erect retaliatory barriers and decrease global prosperity?

Message to Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton–Bungle Asia at your own peril

China, not the United States, will answer these questions, but the kind of relationship that the United States has with China will help shape the answers. Neither an American policy of containment nor one of isolationism will produce the desired outcomes to these challenges. None have been resolved during Obama’s time, but he has made ample progress and laid out a realistic and balanced framework that the next president would do well to heed.

The second is the domestic mood in the United States. Casual proposals by Donald Trump to allow Japan and South Korea to acquire nuclear weapons, to abandon US alliances if its partners don’t pay their ‘fair share’, and to impose 45 per cent tariffs on China would individually and collectively undo the achievements of President Obama and his predecessors.

The Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement (TPP) negotiations, a signature achievement of Obama’s Asia policy, may be a casualty of American domestic politics. If Congress doesn’t approve the TPP this year then approving some form of the TPP will become a priority for  the next administration. Otherwise, people in Asia who have long looked to the United States as an essential partner may conclude that its interests do not include them.

Jeffrey Bader is a senior fellow at the John L. Thornton Center, Brookings Institute. From 2009–2011, he served as special assistant to the president of the United States for national security affairs at the National Security Council. 

This article was first published here on Brookings.


9 thoughts on “Obama’s Pivot to Asia Policy: It’s a Solid Double

  1. The USA is like a once rich uncle who has now fallen on hard times but still needed to show a continuing facade of prosperity to his poor relatives.

    After the coming presidential election, we shall know whether it’s Uncle Sam, (Donald Trump), or Auntie Sam, (Hillary Clinton)

    I have been spending my late nights following the US Presidential election campaign 2016 on CNN. I am disappointed with the quality of discourse between Trump and Hillary, and comments from the so-called political pundits. The paragon of democracy lacks sophistication and intellectual quality. What a shame. –Din Merican

  2. Hello wrongways , its China’s dream to be the Dragon of not only in this region but to reign supreme in the world = that’s your dream ……yes. Najib can be the ‘proxy’ to this grand scheme , and you can be the future …..whatever ambition you may have DELUDING your mind…..you may end up in one of Hospital bahagia of your choice……

    But not that simple , President Obama of the US , and all the Western powers combined have the scheme of ‘ double pivoting ‘ towards Asia and this small Region of South East Asia , and you would not believe that the powerful Koreans and Japanese are ever-ready to this double-pivoting of the West, and you are a dead duck…..Good luck to your bitter-sweet dreams , that perchance if you can live to few centuries more, you might see your self , become the President -in-waiting ,,,,,,,

  3. Wrong Mindset Abnizar, bear in mind the facts that US and Western powers don’t treat their Asian allies, Japan, S Korean, Philippines, etc equal partner, but being used as political tools to contain our Asian powerhouse, China.

    Remember, Japan was conquered, Philippine colonized, S. Korea invaded …till now US still stations its troops and military there….
    You want to be as one of the unequal allies of Western powers subject to their fancy and expect a weak China to become like Arab and Middle East countries! That is your big dream, good luck. No wonder the poor guys like Philippine.. maybe you too!

  4. Rightways, who conquered Japan? I don’t recall history of Japan ever being conquered. Also who invaded South Korea? Maybe I am reading different history books.
    The US were already involved in Asia long before China became an economic and military power. The US became involved in Asia to prevent the spread of Communism.
    You like to use the word mindset, care to elaborate? Inquiring minds want to know.

  5. Semper fi , Japan had no history but its history could be found in China, the Japanese professors told me when I was in Japan for business.

    Japan was conquered I means Japan as one of WWI & WW2 war criminals, was defeated by allied forces that included China.

    Japan learned from China first, and when China became weak, she learned particularly from Nazi Germany from the West, became the Asian power and brought the European wars to Asia disasters, that became World Wars.

    Korea was part of China before but when China was weak, Korea was repeatedly invaded by Japan and wanted independence. After Japan was defeated, Korea was divided into North and South. In 1950~53 when North Korea started war to unite the South Korea. However US don’t want Korean unification and started war with North Korea. When US moved its troops up to China’s border threaten the Chinese, China sent volunteers to push US troops back to the divided line between North and South Korea under UN cease fire agreement. Korea today is technically still at war as US refuses to sign a peace treaty with North Korea.

    China had been a world superpower for thousand years at peace before, as compared the West just for few hundred years as we witnessed the two world wars actually started from the West, the European war.

    Just check the history, our Sultans who did not have problems with strong China in the past, Why you worry about China’s rise and the Chinese? Certainly, it is the mindsets that are corrupted by the Western media!

  6. A strong China can deter hegemony from USA, maintaining the world peace and stability in Asia, Americas, Africa, particularly the Middle East where the root causes are mainly created from US invasions of Iraq, Libya, Afghanistan, and the Arab Springs….

  7. It was due to the weak China, most Asia, including India, Indonesia and Malaysia were invaded, occupied and colonized by the Western powers and Japan.
    We need a strong and powerful China to maintain order, peace and stability of Asia and the world.

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