Obama 2.0 Confronts Asia

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President Barack Obama begins his second term with a new national security team in the making. Although at this time only John Kerry has been confirmed, its seem likely that most, if not all of his key nominees (former Senator Chuck Hagel, John Brennan and Jack Lew) will secure Senate confirmation in the coming weeks.

Obama has clearly resolved to make Asia his priority region on the foreign-policy front. He has spent more time in East Asia than in any other foreign region. Most Asian leaders have welcomed Obama’s reelection, though the political transitions in China, Japan and South Korea increase uncertainties over how long such views will prevail.

During its first term, the Obama administration managed to make progress in resolving some important issues and exploiting valuable opportunities regarding both traditional U.S. allies (such as Japan and South Korea) and emerging partners (ASEAN). In other cases, as with Russia and India, the results have been mixed. But during the next four years the administration faces major challenges in Afghanistan, Iran, North Korea, and above all China—for which no easy solutions are available.

The Pentagon has been able to expand defense cooperation with Southeast Asia, especially Singapore (preparations are currently underway for the basing of U.S. Navy Littoral Combat Ships at Changi Pier), Indonesia (new arms sales and joint training and education opportunities), and Vietnam (expanding engagement to encompass port visits, joint exercises, and defense dialogues).

Another core element of the Asia Pivot is bolstering local militaries’ capacities to deal with lower-level threats. For example, the Obama administration wants to enhance the air and naval capabilities of friendly maritime states so that they can help protect international waterways from pirates and other threats to freedom of the seas, allowing the U.S. Navy to focus on higher-end threats. To further this goal, the United States is selling 24 F-16C/Ds to Indonesia and coastal ships to the Philippines. Similarly, the United States is helping countries build stronger ground forces to suppress local terrorists and insurgents. Border security programs also extend to encompass the potential movement of nuclear and other dangerous materials to global markets. All these capabilities promote the security of the international air and maritime commons, which serve as the foundation of the global economy.

The Obama administration launched a sustained and largely successful diplomatic campaign to reenergize U.S. relations with ASEAN leaders, who complained that they were being neglected under the previous administration. Obama’s decision to accede to ASEAN’s Treaty of Amity and Cooperation was received very positively by ASEAN leaders, who also benefited from regular meetings with their U.S. counterparts. They also welcomed the administration’s successful outreach effort regarding Myanmar.     

Economic ties between ASEAN and the United States made major progress when, in November 2012, Obama hosted talks on the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) initiative at meetings of the East Asia Summit and ASEAN in Cambodia. They set October 2013 as the date when they would like to reach an agreement creating a comprehensive regional trade agreement.

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