US Asia Policy: Things Fall Apart?


Although Vice President Joe Biden’s trip to Northeast Asia this week will likely focus on defusing tensions over China’s new Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ), this is hardly the only issue plaguing the U.S. in Asia.

In general, U.S. Asia policy during the second Obama administration has lacked focus as senior officials have been preoccupied with domestic and other international challenges. Elizabeth Economy rightly notes that the administration has recently “unleashed a barrage of Asia-related speeches, commentaries, and initiatives that should reassure all concerned that the region will remain a centerpiece of the new foreign policy team’s agenda.”

This includes Treasury Secretary Jack Lew visiting the region last month, Biden’s trip this month and Obama’s planned visit in April. Additionally, as Economy points out, National Security Advisor Susan Rice gave her first Asia-oriented speech last month, and Washington promptly reacted to China creating an East China Sea ADIZ. The U.S. military also responded admirably to the typhoon in the Philippines, and the U.S. has also been active in the region-wide discussions over restarting the six party talks over North Korea’s nuclear program.

Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.

While these are commendable, I differ from Economy in attributing too much importance to them. Moreover, a number of other issues suggest that the administration continues to give inadequate attention to the Asia-Pacific, and the results it is getting reflect this relative neglect.

Probably the most encouraging sign about the Obama administration’s commitment to Asia right now are the number of senior-level trips to the region. Lew’s trip was especially notable given that the economic components of the rebalance are lagging behind the military aspects, and the fact that the trip came on the heels of China’s Third Plenum. Biden’s trip is also encouraging because of his familiarity with Chinese President Xi Jinping that dates back to Xi’s time as vice president. However, as noted above, this trip is likely to be one-dimensional given the tensions surrounding the ADIZ.

And while presidential attention is always a positive—time being a president’s most valuable resource—Obama’s upcoming trip hardly signifies a strong presidential commitment to Asia. After all, the trip is merely meant to make up for the trip Obama cancelled in October because of the government shutdown. This is inevitably an inadequate replacement for the October trip given that there will be no regional conferences for Obama to attend in April. Moreover, it is not encouraging that Obama took six months to reschedule that cancelled trip.

Secretary of State John Kerry was sent to the region as Obama’s replacement back in October. Kerry later had to cancel the Philippines portion of the trip due to an upcoming storm. He did however promise to return to the Philippines “within a month or so.” Some Filipino lawmakers questioned the fact that Kerry had cancelled the trip at all, claiming that it could’ve proceeded without incident. These concerns can only have increased now that it has almost been two months since Kerry’s first trip was cancelled, and the State Department has yet to announce when the rescheduled one will occur. Of course, the massive typhoon in the Philippines last month may account for the delay in rescheduling the trip. At the same time, some might think that this event would make Kerry’s visit all the more urgent. Moreover, it’s hard not to be suspicious that Kerry’s intense involvement in the Middle East and Afghanistan haven’t also been behind the delay.

The senior-level trips also hide other troubling personnel issues in the region. For example, as previously noted, Obama nominated Caroline Kennedy to be the ambassador to Japan back in April. It was only in the middle of last month that she arrived in Tokyo. According to The Japan Times, the previous U.S. ambassador left the country back in August, meaning that a three month vacancy occurred at a crucial time. Furthermore, however capable Kennedy may be as a person, she is a political appointee who lacks any kind of diplomatic experience. This is troubling given the kind of high stakes crises she will have to navigate while in Tokyo, with China’s new ADIZ being a telling example.

Her job will be made more difficult by the fact that she’s likely to not have a counterpart in Beijing to help mediate the rising tensions between China and Japan. As The Diplomat previously reported, the current U.S. Ambassador to China, Gary Locke, has tendered his resignation. According to his public resignation statement, his family is already back in the United States and he plans to join them in early 2014. President Obama has yet to nominate Locke’s successor. If Kennedy’s experience is any guide, it could take seven months from the time the president nominates that person for them to arrive in Beijing. Even if s/he is nominated today, that means there could very well be a six month period in which the U.S. does not have an ambassador to China.

More generally, at least from the outside, there does not appear to be a senior level official who is the Obama administration’s point person on Asia or even China. Many felt that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and National Security Advisor Tom Donilon played that role during the first Obama administration.

Clinton’s successor, John Kerry, has clearly marked the Middle East as the region that will consume the bulk of his attention. Donilon’s successor, Susan Rice, has a long, distinguished career in U.S. foreign policy, none of which centers on the Asia-Pacific. As Economy noted, Rice did recently make her first Asia-centric speech as national security advisor. While commendable, as Economy also points out, it offered little in the way of new ideas or policies beyond announcing Obama’s upcoming trip. This hardly suggests a strong interest or commitment to the region. Moreover, Rice became national security advisor on July 1, 2013. The fact that she waited almost five months to give an Asia-centric speech hardly suggests that she will be the administration’s point person on Asia.

But the most troubling aspect of the administration’s neglect of Asia doesn’t have to do with personnel but rather with policy. In particularly, it has to do with the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), the centerpiece of America’s economic rebalance to Asia. The U.S. and its future TPP partners had set a deadline of the end of 2013 for reaching agreement on the text of the treaty. There are no signs that this deadline will be met.

Moreover, as previously reported, 173 members of Congress have come out in opposition to granting the president fast track trade promotion authority, which would allow the president to submit the TPP to Congress for an up-and-down vote without any amendments. Many analysts believe that the administration will not be able to get the TPP through the U.S. Congress unless it has this authority. Yet, there are no signs of a renewed commitment from the administration to lobby Congress on the TPP or fast track trade promotion authority.

This all becomes especially problematic given that 2014 is an election year, which makes it especially unlikely that Congress will ratify any FTA. Moreover, ASEAN is likely to be preoccupied next year with putting all the pieces in place to launch its free trade zone by the beginning of 2015. The best-case scenario for the TPP at this point is that the draft text is finalized in time for President Obama’s trip to the region in April, and that the White House can get a lame duck Congress to ratify it after the November elections. This is hardly impossible but it will require a degree of commitment to the treaty that the administration has hitherto not demonstrated.

In sum, while the Obama administration has given Asia more attention in recent weeks, this commitment will have to be sustained if the U.S. is going to be successful in the region.

Sign up for our weekly newsletter
The Diplomat Brief