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Wheels Up! Has Obama Really Pivoted to Asia?

At least when measured by the time senior U.S. officials are spending in Asia, the pivot is real.

By Phillip Saunders and Katrina Fung for
Wheels Up! Has Obama Really Pivoted to Asia?
Credit: Flickr (The White House)

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.

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.

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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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The biggest difference is between the first and second Bush administration. Senior officials in the first Bush term took 14 trips with 83 total days spent in the region, compared to 27 trips and 139 days in the second term. This is understandable given that after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, senior Bush administration officials were focused on counter-terrorism and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. (We do not count trips that only included Afghanistan or Pakistan, because they focused on the war effort rather than on regional diplomacy.)

Differences between the second Bush administration and the first Obama term are more nuanced, but both demonstrate increased high-level attention to Asia relative to the first Bush term. Senior officials in the second Bush term took 27 trips with 139 days spent in the region, compared to 32 trips and 186 days in the region for senior officials in Obama’s first term.

Obama administration senior officials spent significantly more time in regional meetings, including the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) leaders meeting, the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) Summit, the East Asian Summit (since 2011), the U.S.-ASEAN Summit (since 2009), the Shangri-La dialogue in Singapore, and the ARF Defense Ministers Meeting Plus (since 2010). President Obama also visited five Southeast Asian countries, while Secretary Robert Gates and Secretary Leon Panetta visited seven, and Secretary Hillary Clinton visited all ten ASEAN member states.

Table 2 examines trends in travel by the President, Secretary of State, and Secretary of Defense.

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Table 2: Asia Travel by Position

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In his second term, President Bush significantly stepped up his visits and time in the region – three of his six trips included an APEC summit. President Obama’s five trips all included a multilateral component – including attending APEC and the East Asia and Nuclear Security summits. Secretary Clinton eclipsed her predecessors by spending 101 days in the region and visiting an impressive 23 Asian countries.

The biggest change between Bush’s second term and Obama’s first was in the travel patterns of the secretaries of Defense. During Obama’s first term, Gates and Panetta took thirteen trips to the region, spending 58 days in 15 different countries. Notably, the U.S. Secretary of Defense attended every Shangri-La Security Dialogue from 2009-12 and also the new ASEAN Defense Ministers Meeting Plus from 2010 on.

According to our data, the Obama administration’s rhetorical commitment to the Asia-Pacific has been matched by the commitment of the scarcest resource in government: high-level attention.

Even excluding travel by administration officials with specific Asia responsibilities – such as the Commander of U.S. Pacific Command, the Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs, and the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Asia-Pacific Security Affairs – the data support the Obama administration’s claims that there has been an increase in senior leaders’ time devoted to the Asia-Pacific, U.S. participation in high-level regional meetings, and America’s emphasis on Southeast Asia.

A key operational challenge in implementing the rebalance to Asia will be sustaining this commitment through President Obama’s second term of office, especially with new leadership in the State Department and the Pentagon. Given President Obama’s personal role in crafting the rebalance and the fact that most presidents devote increased attention to foreign policy in their second-terms, this should be manageable. The larger challenge lies in translating the investment of senior official time into substantive results that help the United States benefit from a more prosperous, stable, and secure Asia-Pacific region.

Dr. Phillip Saunders is Director of the Center for the Study of Chinese Military Affairs at the National Defense University’s Institute for National Strategic Studies; Katrina Fung is a contract researcher at the center. Views expressed in this paper are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the policies of the National Defense University, the Department of Defense or the United States Government.