A Chinese Perspective on Obama’s Asia Policy

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A Chinese Perspective on Obama’s Asia Policy

An interview with Zhu Feng.

A Chinese Perspective on Obama’s Asia Policy
Credit: Official White House Photo by Pete Souza

With the U.S. presidential election looming, now is a timely moment to look back at the Obama administration’s “rebalance to Asia” (originally known as the “pivot”). What successes has the policy had, and what challenges continue to face U.S. Asia policy? And how should the next U.S. president – whether Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump – reframe Washington’s approach to this critical region?

To answer these questions, The Diplomat and Dunjiao (formerly Consensus Net) conducted a joint interview with Zhu Feng, executive director at the China Center for Collaborative Studies of the South China Sea and dean of the School of International Relations at Nanjing University. A Chinese-language version of this interview is available from Dunjiao.

What do you think has been the most important change in the U.S. approach to Asia-Pacific since Obama took office in January 2009?

The most significant change in the U.S. approach to the Asia-Pacific during the eight years under Obama has been its rebalance policy, which has shifted the U.S. global security focus away from the two wars in Afghanistan and Iraq after 9/11 and diverted more of its diplomatic and military resources to the Asia-Pacific. This is not only because the Asia-Pacific has become the fastest-growing economy and trading entity in the world. More importantly, Washington now sees China as its most important strategic competitor and believes China poses the largest challenge to the U.S. in the 21st century.

Obama’s rebalance policy is not limited to diplomatic and military tactics; it also tries to maintain the strategic influence of the U.S. in the Asia-Pacific, and to prevent a rising China from undermining its leadership role and interests in the region. This shift in policy is not just targeted toward China. In fact, the Asia-Pacific has now become one of the the political powerhouses of the world. Whether you draw on theories of international relations or historical facts, any region where a lot of political and economic power is concentrated becomes a “battleground” where state actors, especially big powers, tussle with each other for their own gains. After the global financial crisis in 2008, the Asia-Pacific overtook Europe in terms of its trade and investment relations with the United States. Other than a rising China, Obama’s pivot to the Asia-Pacific is also a necessary adjustment in response to such shifts in the global concentration of power.

The rebalance policy is made up of three pillars – reinforcing ties with allies in the region and boosting the U.S. military presence, bolstering diplomatic missions in the region, and pushing through the Trans-Pacific Partnership to prevent China from directing economic and trading rules. All these pillars have seen positive results in the past eight years and this will come down as the largest diplomatic legacy by the Obama administration.

The rebalance is designed to cement U.S. presence and influence in Asia. Observers in both the U.S. and China differ in their assessment of this policy. Some believe it has met its expectations, while some believe rather than putting a cap on China’s hegemonic ambitions, it has stoked China to accelerate its military expansion (for example, building islands in the South China Sea). What is your take on this?

Obama’s rebalance has caused China greater concerns over U.S. intentions in the region, and has stoked Xi Jinping to further increase China’s military budget, upgrade its military equipment, and reform its army. The U.S. is also assuming more responsibilities on conflicts in the South and East China Seas, coupled with increased military commitments. During his visit to Japan in April 2014, President Obama publicly stated that the Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands are covered by the U.S.-Japan Security Treaty. Under the recently signed Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement with the Philippines, the U.S. has restarted rotational deployment in five military bases in the country. It has also lifted its ban on arms trade to Vietnam. All these are indication that the U.S. sees the Asia-Pacific as the priority in its global strategy.

There is, however, a big difference in Obama’s policy between his first and second term. During his first term, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton chose Asia as her first overseas destination, and she visited Asia extensively during her time in office. While during Obama’s second term, because of the turmoil in the Middle East and the Crimea crisis in Ukraine, Secretary Kerry had to visit those conflict zones far more often than Asia. In a way, Obama’s rebalance was compromised by the events in the Middle East and Europe.

This distraction aside, the U.S. still managed to effectively bolster its political and defense partnership with Japan, allowing the Abe cabinet to reinterpret the constitution and boost Japan’s military power. Japan now has a much more active political and strategic role in the Asia-Pacific. If part of the pivot to the Asia-Pacific involves a more assertive Japan, Obama’s policy has already achieved part of its objective.

As to whether the rebalance is an effective deterrent that can reshape the China-U.S. relations, from what we can see at this point, the policy has no doubt stoked China to beef up its defense power. China is also having greater concerns over U.S. intentions. This is also what is behind China’s decision to build islands in the South China Sea.

What approach do you think the United States will take toward China’s “Belt and Road” initiative? Does the Belt and Road pose challenges for the rebalance?

The U.S. is certainly concerned over China’s “Belt and Road” initiative proposed by Xi Jinping. Some American pundits see it as a tactic to counteract the U.S. rebalance. But I disagree. The real intention of B&R is to speed up the development of China’s globally-oriented economy, increase China’s involvement and influence in international economic affairs, and efficiently capitalize on its domestic overproduction. B&R in itself does not bear any strong security and strategic significance.

However, China’s B&R will still pose a challenge sooner or later to the U.S rebalance. China will not hesitate in converting its increasing regional and cross-regional economic power to more diplomatic and strategic influence. But we should not be overoptimistic about the prospect of B&R. Xi Jinping’s ideal of joint consultation, joint construction, and sharing will take a long time to bear fruit; it will also invite competition from other countries as well as raise concerns over the environment and security. Moreover, B&R does not have any direct military and strategic implications. I would rather see B&R as China’s effort to increase its involvement in global economy as well as its influence in the regional economy, by capitalizing on its economic and geopolitical advantages. It may indirectly pose challenges to the U.S. attempt to isolate China and undermine its competitive edge, but to directly challenge the U.S. rebalance out of security concerns is never China’s intention.

Given that North Korea just conducted its fifth nuclear test, how would you evaluate the Obama administration’s North Korea policy? What do you think are the main obstacles to finding a resolution?

North Korea carried out its second nuclear test in 2016 on September 9. This is already the fifth test since 2006 and North Korea’s nuclear capacity has now increased. In fact, Obama’s “strategic patience” toward North Korea has completely failed. After the ROKS Cheonan sinking in April 2010, Washington basically gave up all attempts to engage and talk with North Korea while insisting it will not be deceived this time. The Obama administration clearly lacks enthusiasm and motivation for finding a diplomatic and political resolution to the crisis. This is in stark contrast to its policy of sanctions on the one hand and dialogue on the other in its dealings with Iran. The deterioration of North Korea’s nuclear crisis is a direct result of the Obama administration’s negligent diplomacy toward North Korea.

North Korea’s nuclear threat has lingered on till this day largely because of the peculiar nature of the Kim regime, which is currently the most authoritarian, terrifying, and antagonistic regime in the world. This is clearly not a regime that would succumb because of external pressure, isolation, or sanctions. Another obstacle is that the Obama administration has counted a great deal on China playing a “responsible” part in resolving the crisis, expecting the same role from China that U.S. has played in reaching a deal with Iran on the latter’s nuclear programs. The U.S. expected China to sever its relations with North Korea entirely like the U.S., Japan, and South Korea, and to suspend all trade relations with as well as its gas supply to North Korea. These arbitrary demands are not something China can deliver.

China maintains a policy of no nukes, no turmoil, and no military action on the peninsula, and has supported more intense international sanctions in response to North Korea’s nuclear tests. China still hopes to restart dialogues and has suggested the U.S. and North Korea should transform their armistice into a peace treaty in the process of talks on North Korea’s nuclear programs. The problem is that the Obama administration also does not want to consider China’s suggestions. China and the U.S. fail to converge on their policy toward North Korea. This is the main reason why North Korea’s nuclear crisis continues to stall.

The Trans-Pacific Partnership is the centerpiece of Obama’s rebalance. What is the likelihood of TPP being ratified in the U.S. before Obama steps down? If it fails to pass through the U.S. Congress, what does that mean for Obama’s Asia-Pacific legacy?

The likelihood of TPP getting ratified by Congress before Obama steps down is extremely low. Just look at the political and social rifts created up by the 2016 presidential election; it’s hard to imagine TPP could be ratified by both houses within the remaining two months of 2016. If TPP fails to pass through Congress, it will deal a severe blow to Obama’s rebalance, since TPP is the economic pillar of the policy. This also points to a challenge that Obama’s rebalance faces – it won’t go very far without reaching domestic consensus first and having congressional support.

What changes do you think the next U.S. president will make to the Obama administration’s rebalance policy? 

When Trump becomes the next president, TPP talks will likely be shelved by the Republican Party. But Trump’s policy toward the Asia-Pacific will not be what he had claimed in his campaigns – isolationism and weaker relations with U.S. allies in Asia-Pacific. Trump will make major changes to the U.S. foreign policy, but such adjustments will mostly not be about the Asia-Pacific. Trump’s approach to the region will continue in its orientation the pivot strategy under Obama; the change will only be a matter of policy focus. For instance, the U.S. may ask its allies in the Asia-Pacific to take on more significant roles in maintaining security of the region.