Wheels Up! Has Obama Really Pivoted to Asia?
Image Credit: Flickr (The White House)

Wheels Up! Has Obama Really Pivoted to Asia?


Is the vaunted Obama administration’s “rebalance to Asia” simply rhetoric or is it something more?

National Security Advisor, Tom Donilon, described the rebalance as a “comprehensive, multidimensional strategy: strengthening alliances; deepening partnerships with emerging powers; building a stable, productive, and constructive relationship with China; empowering regional institutions; and helping to build a regional economic architecture that can sustain shared prosperity.” He added, “These are the pillars of the U.S. strategy, and rebalancing means devoting the time, effort and resources necessary to get each one right.”

Some question whether there is really anything new and different regarding Obama’s “pivot” to Asia. This is of particular importance, especially given that U.S. officials have been proclaiming the need for increased attention to Asia since the 1990 East Asia Strategy Initiative.

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Two distinctive aspects of Obama’s Asia policy so far are its emphasis on multilateralism and the heightened priority accorded to Southeast Asia. This has been illustrated by numerous policy measures, including the signing of the ASEAN Treaty of Amity and Cooperation, appointing the first resident U.S. Ambassador to ASEAN, and committing to send senior officials (including the president) to participate in a range of regional meetings.

If an administration is serious about a policy initiative, then its rhetoric will be matched by resources. ”The most valuable commodity in Washington,” Donilon has noted, is “the President’s time.” Under President Obama, more of this resource has been devoted to the Asia-pacific.

It says a great deal, for instance, that President Obama made the determination that the United States would participate every year in the East Asia Summit at the head of state level and hold U.S.-ASEAN summits; that he has met bilaterally with nearly every leader in Southeast Asia, either in the region or in Washington; and that he has engaged with China at an unprecedented pace, including twelve face-to-face meetings with Hu Jintao.

One way of evaluating whether the rebalance to Asia is more than rhetoric is to compare the time that senior Obama administration officials have spent traveling in the Asia-Pacific to the time spent by their immediate predecessor, the George W. Bush administration. How much time do the president, secretary of State, and secretary of Defense spend in Asia and what do they do while there? Does the duration of their trips and the activities they participate in differ significantly from their predecessors?

While conducting research for a forthcoming assessment of the rebalance to Asia, we examined the Asia travel itineraries and patterns of senior officials in the first and second terms of the Bush administration, as well as the first term of the Obama administration. We counted the total number of trips, calculated the days spent on the ground in Asia, and tried to assess the extent to which each trip focused on bilateral or multilateral engagement. The raw data is summarized in Table 1 and the accompanying graph below.

Table 1: Asia Travel by the Bush and Obama Administrations



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