Obama 2.0 Confronts Asia

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Obama 2.0 Confronts Asia

President Obama was broadly successful in the Asia-Pacific during his first term. He’ll have to work harder the second time around.

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.

Given the complex technical, economic, and divisive political issues this endeavor would entail, the October 2013 timetable for signing a TPP agreement appears overly optimistic. But the rival Beijing-backed projects must also overcome major differences among their proposed members in terms of their resources, competitive advantages, and stages of development. A more serious problem is that, though the TPP initiative has come to symbolize renewed U.S. economic leadership in East Asia, its economic impact will remain modest unless Canada, Japan, Mexico, South Korea and other strong economies besides the United States join it.

Furthermore, ASEAN remains a relatively weak institution. Unless a strong country occupies the annually rotating chairmanship, the association will not be able to accomplish much. This problem was particularly evident last year under the Cambodian chairmanship, which was marked by ineffectual leadership and Beijing-tilting policies that prevented the association from adopting a strong stand on maritime sovereignty issues. For now, if the United States wants to promote any major initiatives in the region, it must do so primarily through its bilateral alliances and partnerships, or through less formal multilateral coalitions of the willing, rather than through ASEAN.

Fortunately, after years of strain, relations with formal U.S. military allies in the Pacific have improved during the Obama administration’s first term. President Obama and Prime Minister Julia Gillard renewed the U.S.-Australian alliance in November 2011, when they announced an agreement to place 250 U.S. Marines in Darwin, marking the first stage of a rotation plan that will see as many as 2,500 U.S. Marines rotate through northern Australia as well as other augmentations to the U.S. military presence in Australia.

By the end of the first Obama administration, the bilateral security relationship with Japan had rebounded from earlier tensions over local opposition to the Futenma Marine Air Station in Okinawa, and the new Japanese government’s desire to pursue a more balanced policy between Washington and Beijing. The United States has also stood in solid opposition to North Korea’s missile launches and China’s maritime assertiveness.

The Obama administration’s strong support for the Republic of Korea (ROK) in the face of the 2010 provocations of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK)–the sinking of the South Korean warship Cheonan and its shelling of Yeonpyeong Island—made the United States popular in South Korea, particularly compared to China, which refused to condemn Pyongyang for its actions. Meanwhile, outgoing ROK President Lee Myung-bak has stood behind the U.S. demand that the DPRK end its nuclear weapons and ballistic missile development programs.

The Philippines has welcomed the Obama administration’s strong interest in Southeast Asia and ASEAN, of which the Philippines is a leading member. The administration has strengthened the U.S.-Philippine security alliance by enhancing security and stability in the South China Sea (West Philippine Sea), modernizing the Armed Forces of the Philippines, supporting the peace process in Muslim areas of Mindanao, and promoting broad-based economic growth and democratic development in the Philippines.

Finally, on November 15, 2012, U.S. Defense Secretary Panetta signed a joint vision statement with Thailand’s Defense Minister, renewing the Thai-U.S. military alliance. Panetta emphasized the U.S. willingness to help develop and modernize Thailand’s military.  

Although these are welcome developments in U.S. bilateral relations with ASEAN nations, a persistent concern remains that a major event will impart a systematic shock to America’s partnerships with these regional players, driving these relations downward toward their historical mean. With relations so good, on average they will tend to worsen without continued efforts to keep ties strong.

A war in Korea might inflict such a blow. North Korea has now detonated three nuclear explosive devices already and is striving to make small nuclear warheads that can be launched on the DPRK’s improving ballistic missiles. Although the DPRK presently lacks missiles capable of reaching North America, it already possesses many missiles that can attack targets in Japan, including the U.S. forces based there. Thanks to its continued testing of long-range rockets, experts calculate that the DPRK could have an intercontinental ballistic with sufficient range to hit targets in North America within five years or less.

The Obama administration achieved remarkable success in securing international sanctions against North Korea for its proliferation activities, but recent UN reports indicate that the sanctions are not being applied effectively, with some Chinese nongovernmental entities working to circumvent them. Most importantly, the United States has made no progress in eliminating North Korea’s nuclear arsenal or engaging with the DPRK.

The Obama administration has been willing to negotiate nuclear and other issues directly with the DPRK, within the Six-Party framework, but since Pyongyang has continued its intransigence, most recently by launching a long-range missile in December and now threatening a third nuclear weapons test, the United States and its allies have shunned the DPRK diplomatically and punished it with additional unilateral and multilateral sanctions.

Under its policy of “strategic patience,” the Obama administration has demanded that the DPRK give some concrete indication that it will make major nuclear concessions. But this policy of patiently waiting for verifiable changes in DPRK policies entails several risks. First, it provides North Koreans with additional breathing room to refine their nuclear and missile programs. Second, the DPRK might launch even more ballistic missiles or detonate additional nuclear devices to confirm and support this development process, or may do so simply out of frustration over being ignored. Finally, the strategy of waiting for the DPRK to introduce major reforms risks allowing a minor incident to escalate if the ROK’s implements its post-2010 proactive deterrence policy of retaliating swiftly and vigorously to any DPRK provocation.

Whether Park Geun-Hye, the new ROK president, will remain as firmly supportive of U.S. nonproliferation goals as President Lee remains uncertain given her desire to distance herself from her predecessor as well as initiate an outreach effort toward Pyongyang’s new leadership, which has shown a willingness to experiment with new domestic if not foreign policies. 

Iran looks to remain another enduring nonproliferation problem for the new Obama administration. The United States and its allies have found themselves in a challenging position regarding Iran’s nuclear program. Economic sanctions have thus far failed to induce Tehran to renounce plans to enrich large quantities of uranium, potentially suitable for manufacturing nuclear weapons (at a higher level of enrichment). Yet, the United States and other Asian leaders recognize that using military force in an attempt to destroy Iran’s nuclear program could easily fail and possibly backfire.

The lack of good options has generally kept trans-pacific differences regarding how to respond to Iran’s nuclear activities limited. Asian governments, including China and Russia, have generally adhered to some variant of a “two-track” policy that balances diplomacy with sanctions. Of course, as President Obama pointed out earlier, despite U.S. and other international efforts to negotiate a compromise, “It may be that their ideological commitment to nuclear weapons is such that they’re not making a simple cost-benefit analysis on this issue.” 

The nature of the Iranian political system amplifies this problem. The intra-elite splits that have intensified since the disputed 2009 presidential election have complicated reconciliation efforts between Washington and Tehran. An unfortunate dynamic has arisen. Whenever Iranian negotiators have seemed to support a compromise deal regarding their nuclear policies or other activities, reformers as well as nationalists have attacked them for selling out Iran’s interests. An enduring U.S.-Iran reconciliation remains improbable until new political leaders emerge in Iran who enjoy genuine popular support and are capable of envisaging a genuine improvement in relations with the United States. 

The Obama administration is striving to stabilize Afghanistan by the time it withdraws most U.S. combat troops, but whether it can realize such an achievement remains uncertain. At their meetings in Washington last month, Presidents Obama and Karzai agreed to accelerate the U.S. military withdrawal timetable. Obama justified the decision by citing the declared success of the U.S. military surge in Afghanistan in defeating al-Qaeda, weakening the Taliban, and building up the Afghan security forces. Obama later announced in his State of the Union address that 34,000 U.S. troops would be withdrawn over the next year, ahead of all combat troops being out of Afghanistan by the end of 2014.

Obama also discussed the nature of the post-2014 Afghan-U.S. military cooperation, but the two governments provided few details regarding how they planned to implement the Strategic Partnership that they signed last year in Kabul. Nor did the Afghan-U.S. discussions resolve uncertainties concerning how Afghanistan would ensure the holding of free and fair presidential elections in 2014, or achieve progress in the peace negotiations with the Afghan Taliban and their foreign sponsors in Pakistan. 

In this regard, Pakistan might see, for the first time in its history, an elected civilian government transfer power to another team of elected civilians. Unfortunately, this spring’s national elections could bring to power politicians less supportive to U.S. interests than the current leaders, who have struggled to sustain minimum cooperation with the U.S. war on terror, especially the use of drone strikes, in the face of their citizens’growing hostility towards the United States. Whoever wins this year’s ballot will find it hard to rein in the elements within the Pakistani intelligence services that support the Islamist terrorists in Afghanistan and India. And the temptation will always exist in Islamabad to seek to squeeze Washington by suspending the Pentagon’s use of the ground supply lines through Pakistani territory that convey goods to the NATO troops in Afghanistan.

The administration’s Russian Reset actually helped NATO survive the year-long ban that Islamabad imposed for most of 2011, as the Pentagon was able to transport defense supplies through Russia and its Central Asian allies using the Northern Distribution Network that has been constructed during the Obama administration. Despite this promising improvement, Russian-U.S. relations remain strained over U.S. ballistic missile defense plans, while Washington has been unable to secure all the help it wants from Moscow regarding Iran.  The Russian government’s image among Americans has been deteriorating sharply since Putin’s return to the presidency, with the Pussy Riot scandal, ban on Americans adopting Russian orphans, and government crackdown on civil liberties. Russia’s weakening economy has decreased its global influence, including in Washington. On the other hand, Moscow was angered by the U.S. Congress passing, and President Obama signing, a new law that prohibits Russian officials thought to be involved in the death of Sergei Magnitsky from traveling to the U.S. or accessing its banking system. The Russian parliament responded by passing a self-defeating measure limiting Americans’ ability to adopt Russian orphans.

Although the Russian government has been working on its own Asian Pivot, the Obama administration continues to treat Russia as an afterthought in most of its regional initiatives. Russia might be tempted to align closer to China to address common concerns about U.S. military policies and to get Washington’s attention. Russia and China recently announced that they would cooperate to counter U.S. missile defenses, which they see as aimed at negating their nuclear deterrent and global influence. They are also expanding their energy trade.

The main unresolved issue affecting the Obama administration’s Asian pivot, however, is how China will fit into the new framework. U.S. officials are divided regarding whether Beijing represents a potential partner or problem. The administration has yet to find a robust balance between deterring and engaging Beijing, as well as between assuring its allies and friends that the United States would neither abandon them to China’s growing might nor entrap them in an unwanted confrontation with Beijing. 

The Obama administration has tried to avoid confronting China directly by emphasizing general principles—freedom of the sea, peaceful settlement of territorial disputes, etc.—rather than pursuing policies designed explicitly to counter China. Nonetheless, PRC policy makers accuse the United States of stirring up trouble in their backyard. They complain about U.S. arms sales to Taiwan, U.S. missile defense deployments in Asia, and U.S. diplomatic interventions in Beijing’s maritime territorial disputes with Japan, the Philippines, and other countries.  Outside the PRC, Asian leaders have generally welcomed the renewed U.S. security presence and its increasing role in the region, but they have also taken pains to avoid being seen as siding with Washington against Beijing. 

The Obama administration’s economic vision for East Asia, embodied in the TPP, also competes with that of China, which is actively lobbying countries to enter rival free-trade agreements that do not include the United States. For its part, the Obama administration has not formally excluded China from joining the TPP, but Beijing would need to revalue its currency, end subsidies to state-owned companies, better protect foreign intellectual property, and take other steps that China has either long resisted or proved unwilling to implement.

But perhaps the most serious challenge for the Obama administration’s Asian policy lies at home. The United States faces a tight fiscal environment that will constrain the resources Washington needs to implement its Asian pivot.

Even more than further increases in the Pentagon’s budget the United States needs to “rebalance the rebalance”—in other words, to augment the non-military elements of the pivot by increasing the resources available to the U.S. civilian national security agencies.

The current public preoccupation with military rebalancing—asking how many U.S. ships and planes will be in the Pacific—has given some Asians the misleading impression that the Pivot is essentially a grand redeployment of the U.S. military to contain China. Greater emphasis on the role of U.S. civilian agencies in the Pivot will help dispel this misperception and make it easier to gain support from cautious Asian leaders seeking a greater U.S. role in their region but not at the risk of antagonizing Beijing.