Where Was the Rebalance to Asia in Obama’s West Point Speech?

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On Wednesday, U.S. President Barack Obama gave the commencement address at the United States Military Academy in West Point, New York.  The speech was billed in advance as a major foreign policy address, a chance for Obama to both defend his past foreign policy moves and to lay out his vision for the future. The speech is just the beginning of what is expected to be a major administration push to shape messaging on its foreign policy decisions, past and future. Given that Obama’s signature foreign policy slogan is the “rebalance to Asia,” a general foreign policy address has direct implications on the Asia-Pacific. What role does the U.S. seek to play there and around the world? What are its priorities and goals?

The major theme of Obama’s address was that America continues to be “the one indispensable nation.” With its global network of alliances and peerless capabilities, the U.S. is the only country capable of global leadership, according to Obama’s view. “America must always lead on the world stage. If we don’t, no one else will,” he said during his commencement speech. Obama also dismissed those “who suggest that America is in decline” by arguing that “America has rarely been stronger relative to the rest of the world.”

This unabashed portrait of American exceptionalism is sure to rankle in China, which has long denounced U.S. “hegemony.” Beijing envisions a new world order, a “more just” international order, where developing nations have an equal seat at the table and the U.S. no longer dominates international systems. Obama continues to claim the global leadership role as solely American domain. As galling as this will be for China, smaller nations in the Asia-Pacific (who look to the U.S. to balance China’s rise) will be relieved to hear that Obama has no interest in relinquishing U.S. leadership.

However, when it comes to the question of how the U.S. will lead, Obama’s stance was murkier. As always, he rejected the binary choice between interventionism and isolationism, arguing that the correct choice is a middle path. According to Obama, “American isolationism is not an option” but the U.S. should also resist the tendency “to rush into military adventures.”

So what does this mean for Asia? First, Obama was very clear that “the United States will use military force, unilaterally if necessary, when our core interests demand it.” One such scenario, Obama said, would be if “the security of our allies is in danger.” Obama had previously pointed to the South China Sea as an area where unchecked “regional aggression … could draw in our military.” As with promises of U.S. global leadership, this proclamation will be worrying to Beijing and reassuring to U.S. allies like Japan and the Philippines.

However, under a closer reading of his remarks, it seems less likely that Obama would actually condone military intervention in the Asia-Pacific. Obama put Ukraine in the same category as the South China Sea, and he has shown no inclination of involving the U.S. military in that crisis. Ukraine, as well as the South China Sea and other potential crises in the Asia-Pacific, might instead fall under Obama’s second category: “issues of global concern that do not pose a direct threat to the United States.” On such issues, Obama said, “the threshold for military action must be higher.” Instead, the U.S. would seek other methods of addressing problems, ranging from economic sanctions to the use of international law. Multilateral military action would be considered only as a last resort.

This strategy seems to be the Ukraine model, where the U.S. had little incentive to get involved in a military conflict but wanted to check Russia’s annexation of Ukrainian territory. In his speech, Obama defended his handling of the Ukraine crisis, arguing that the U.S. “ability to shape world opinion helped isolate Russia right away.” This will be news to those countries, including India and China, that continue to either tacitly or directly back Russia’s actions in Ukraine. If a dose of U.S.-led “isolation” will be the only penalty for regional aggression, that will raise concerns in Asia. International anger is a price China has already proven itself willing to pay.

When it comes to Asia-Pacific issues, Obama seems more likely to turn to multilateral forums for discussion and action. He spoke of “supporting Southeast Asian nations as they negotiate a code of conduct with China on the South China Sea” and “working to resolve territorial and maritime disputes through international law.” The open question, of course, is what happens should these efforts fail, especially as there’s been little progress on a COC and China has refused to engage in international arbitration. Obama offers little in the way of alternatives if multilateral diplomacy proves ineffective.

Despite talk of a U.S. “rebalance to Asia,” Obama’s major foreign policy address actually had a more familiar focus: terrorism, which Obama called “the most direct threat to America at home and abroad.” In his speech, Obama promised to partner with regional countries “from South Asia to the Sahel” to conduct counter-terrorism operations. He also unveiled a plan for a new $5 billion “Counter-Terrorism Partnership Fund,” which will provide funding for training and equipment activities as well as counter-terrorism operations in other countries. In particular, funds will go to help Syria’s neighbors

It’s clear then that the U.S. will continue to focus its efforts on fighting terrorism. This includes resolving the Syria crisis — funds from the new CTPF will go to help Syria’s neighbors host refugees and clamp down on cross-border terrorism. Obama also devoted chunks of his speech to discussing the U.S. response to the crisis in Ukraine and the Iranian nuclear negotiations. The Asia-Pacific, meanwhile, was relatively neglected. The major accomplishment Obama claimed in the Asia-Pacific was Burma’s political reforms — obviously not something the U.S. can claim direct credit for.

For a speech that was meant to lay out Obama’s foreign policy priorities, it’s puzzling that his administration’s signature foreign policy initiative, the “rebalance to Asia,” wasn’t even referenced in the text. The geographic areas of emphasis in his speech were primarily in the Middle East and Eastern Europe, with a few references to the South China Sea and general unease caused by China’s rise. His speech will do little to reassure critics who feel the Asia-Pacific region still plays second fiddle to more traditional areas of U.S. concern.

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