The Debate

Asia’s Four Big Questions for Obama’s Second Term

President Obama has won reelection. Will the “pivot” continue? Asia has many questions…

Reactions in Asian capitals to President Obama’s reelection are likely mixed today. His initiatives in the region have at times received applause and at times been subject to derision. Over the past four years, U.S. tensions with China have ebbed and flowed; ties to allies have at times frayed and at times been bolstered. Countries across Asia have, of course, experienced and perceived the first Obama administration in different ways. But tonight, as leaders in Tokyo, Beijing, Jakarta, and elsewhere look ahead to the next four years, they are all asking themselves the same four major questions:

What is the fate of the Asia pivot? Secretary of State Hilary Clinton and Assistant Secretary for East Asian and Pacific Affairs Kurt Campbell are generally considered to be the pivot’s architects. But in what may prove an unfortunate turn for the pivot, they are also widely expected to depart the Obama administration. It is as of yet unclear whether this new Asia policy—which still appears to be more style than substance—has been sufficiently institutionalized to survive without champions in leadership positions in a second Obama administration. Nor is it clear who, should Clinton and Campbell leave government, those champions would be. The pivot’s fate will go far in determining the nature of U.S. relationships with countries across Asia over the next four years.

Will the Asia-Pacific military balance continue to shift in China’s favor? The president and the Congress may successfully work out a deal over the next six weeks to avert sequestration. But any such deal is likely to include some level of cuts to defense spending, which will be on top of cuts that already are on the books. Maintaining a favorable military balance in Asia is a capital-intensive effort and, with U.S. Central Command necessarily sucking up attention and resources, one the United States is already failing to adequately fund.  Strategic stability in Asia could suffer for it.

Will the United States get serious about trade? Foreign developments all but forced the president’s hand when it came to completing free trade agreements with South Korea, Colombia, and Panama, all three of which were negotiated during the George W. Bush presidency. Now, with the pivot’s future questionable and with the Democratic Party set to expand its majority in the Senate, the Trans-Pacific Partnership (also not an Obama initiative) may see its already-limited momentum stalled. TPP participants may find themselves more dependent on trade ties with China as a result.

Can the president’s economic plan kick start U.S. growth? With China’s economic growth slowing, perhaps permanently, its role as the engine driving growth across the region will be more limited. The United States can pick up some of the slack, but only if unemployment decreases, take-home pay increases, and businesses flourish. America’s economic performance over the past four years has lagged, and export-driven economies on the far side of the Pacific have suffered for it. If President Obama can turn things around—an unfortunately big if—countries across Asia will benefit.

Michael Mazza is a research fellow for the American Enterprise Institute.