In response to Beijing’s massive reclamation activities across the Spratly Islands, giving birth to a sprawling network of military bases and advanced facilities on a string of disputed features, the United States has stepped up its reconnaissance missions in the area, presenting a more-than-just-symbolic challenge to Chinese assertion of sovereignty in international waters.
Diplomatically, the Obama administration has stood by its Southeast Asian allies, with the latest ASEAN Foreign Ministers Meeting (FMM) — and the Shangri-La Dialogue before that — showcasing a verbal tussle between Washington and Beijing. While China hubristically adopted a “don’t even mention it” position vis-à-vis the South China Sea disputes, the U.S. reiterated the relevance of addressing the maritime spats for international security.
In the end, the ASEAN found enough encouragement to not only reiterate its “serious concern” over the troubling trajectory of the disputes, but the Malaysian leader Najib Razak also went so far as declaring it was time for the region to “take a more active role” in resolving the South China Sea disputes.
Despite these moves, almost five years into the Obama administration’s pivot to Asia policy, there are still lingering uncertainties as to the extent of American commitment to its regional allies, principally the Philippines and Japan, which are pushing back against a revanchist China. Not only are there concerns over American wherewithal to rein in a rising China — as fiscal constraints affect military acquisitions and deployments — but Washington’s toxic partisan politics is also (once again) putting American credibility into question.
As far as the pivot’s credibility is concerned, there are at least two major problems, which have become ever more entwined in recent years. The first source of concern is the increasingly toxic nature of partisan politics in the United States, with the country’s Madisonian democracy looking more like a system of ‘checks and imbalances.’
In his latest book, Political Order and Political Decay, Francis Fukuyama laments the precarious sharpening of ideological differences among the two dominant parties, the weakening of the centrist forces in favor of more radical elements that dominate primaries, and the growing strength of lobby groups, which have come to greatly influence Congressional votes and elections. This trend has had adverse impact on American foreign policy.
Back in 2013, the ideological squabbles reached a fever pitch, not only leading to a historic government shutdown, but also preventing Obama from fulfilling a much-anticipated Asian tour. His no-show at the APEC and ASEAN summits rattled allies and strategic partners, providing Chinese leaders the opportunity to dominate the two leading Asia-Pacific forums. It was a diplomatic disaster, to say the least, and regional states could barely conceal their disappointment.
“While politically we understand the reason for the president’s decision, of course it is disappointing for all those involved,” a Bruneian official told reporters. Meanwhile, Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong lamented, “America has to continue to be engaged in this region because it plays a very important role which no other country can replace, not China, not Japan, not any other power.”
Obama had to even skip a visit to its oldest regional ally (and sole Asian colony), the Philippines, which was desperately seeking American military support in the wake of Chinese coercive acquisition of the Scarborough Shoal and its subsequent siege on the Philippine-controlled Second Thomas Shoal. There was a deep sense of abandonment among America’s closest allies, while regional fence sitters, who have sought good relations with both Beijing and Washington, certainly took notice.
The second major source of concern is the Middle East. Though Obama staked his legacy on ending the wars in Iraq (2011) and Afghanistan (2014), he always struggled to decouple American imperial commitments from the troubled region. The Arab uprisings and the subsequent rise of ISIS (“Daesh” in Arabic) has made it very difficult for Washington to rebalance its strategic focus towards East Asia.
While Secretary of State Hillary Clinton played a key role in injecting America into the heart of the maritime disputes in Asia, and facilitating expanded U.S. military footprint in the region, the same can’t be said about her successor, John Kerry, who has devoted much of his time to resolving the Middle East crises. Not only did Kerry express doubts as to the necessity for greater American military presence in Asia, but he also ended up spending more time with the Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif than any of his counterparts in order to resolve the Iranian nuclear issue.
The ongoing squabble over the Iranian nuclear deal, meanwhile, is undermining global trust in the ability of American presidents to deliver on their international commitments. The huge Republican and pro-Israel pushback against the nuclear deal has become so alarming that the other great powers, who jointly negotiated the Iranian nuclear deal with the United States, have desperately sought to prevent a Congressional sabotage. Obama himself, who is engaging in a bitter battle with his domestic opponents, raised concerns over how the domestic opposition to the Iranian nuclear deal is undermining the “world’s attitude about U.S. leadership.”
In some ways, the Iran deal debate is a case-in-point for Asian concerns about the U.S. commitment to their region. If the Obama administration can’t even deliver on a unanimously-approved international agreement, then questions over American leadership are bound to echo to other troubled spots like East Asia. And if the Iranian deal falls apart, it will raise the possibility of war that will absorb American strategic attention like never before.
The author is an assistant professor in political science at De La Salle University, and a former policy adviser at the Philippine House of Representatives (2009-2015). He is the author of Asia’s New Battlefield: US, China, and the Struggle for the Western Pacific (London, 2015).