US Asia Policy After Obama: Opportunities and Challenges

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US Asia Policy After Obama: Opportunities and Challenges

A deeper look at what lies ahead for the next administration.

US Asia Policy After Obama: Opportunities and Challenges
Credit: Flickr/US Embassy Manila

WASHINGTON, D.C. – “Look, overall, I’d be pretty happy with what he’s handed me, big picture,” one of U.S. President Barack Obama’s advisers said somewhat frustratedly in a conversation about the president’s rebalance to Asia policy back in August in Washington, D.C., after I had gone through a laundry list of criticisms.

It is difficult to quibble with the argument that Obama has gotten the “big picture” right on the U.S. rebalance to Asia. Entering office with the United States bogged down in quagmires in Iraq and Afghanistan and in the midst of the greatest financial crisis since the Great Depression, Obama has redirected U.S. attention to the Asia-Pacific, a smart, if belated, acknowledgement of the tremendous opportunities in the region as well as significant challenges that are likely to endure well into the 21st century. Indeed, when then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton wrote her famous article in Foreign Policy, seen as the roll out of the rebalance, Asia was already generating more than half of global output and nearly half of global trade.

The list of achievements within the rebalance – from concluding and institutionalizing new diplomatic partnerships with emerging powers to boosting the U.S. military presence in the region – is also impressive by any standard, even if one subtracts the initiatives that were already underway during George W. Bush’s second term, as some of Obama’s critics might be inclined to do. Daniel Russel, the U.S. top diplomat for Asia, has even been publicly suggesting this year that the increased U.S. commitment to the region has now become a “new normal.”

But it is also true that Obama leaves office with much of the domestic work unfinished, some areas of U.S. Asia policy underdeveloped, and a wide array of regional and global challenges managed but ultimately unaddressed. Indeed, as the next administration officially takes the reins to Asia policy in January 2017, the inheritance will elicit mixed feelings.

Unpacking the Rebalance

Before assessing the rebalance, it is important to clarify what exactly it is, since it has been subject to no shortage of sloppy and misguided analysis.

For most of the 20th century and particularly since the end of World War II, U.S. foreign policy has basically sought to advance greater security, prosperity, and democracy globally. American policymakers have also been focused more specifically on preserving U.S. hegemony in the Eurasian landmass and preventing any other single power from dominating it, primarily the Soviet Union during the Cold War. That idea dates back to the British geographer Halford Mackinder in the early 20th century, though it has also informed U.S. foreign policy strategists from George F. Kennan to Zbigniew Brzezinski.

These broad objectives in U.S. foreign policy continue to be relevant today. But the rebalance at its broadest level represented a recognition by the Obama administration that Asia’s growing heft requires the United States to devote relatively more of its resources, attention, and time to the region than it had previously even as Washington continues to address concerns in other parts of the world as any global superpower is expected to do.

The list of strategies to advance this vision or goal has evolved during the administration’s tenure, but five key ones are evident: modernizing U.S. treaty alliances; engaging emerging powers; investing more in regional institutions; expanding U.S. economic engagement; and protecting human rights and promoting democracy.

Though all of these strategies were also employed previously to varying degrees, the focus on these particular ones as well as the relative weight assigned to each of them reflected deeper underlying assumptions held by the Obama administration about the role of the United States in Asia and the world. These include the importance of cultivating current and emerging powers to facilitate greater burden-sharing in a more multipolar world; the centrality of institutions in shaping and reinforcing rules and norms; and the need to prevent unnecessary conflict and facilitate heretofore unrealized cooperation, including with rivals and adversaries.

Assessing the Policy

How, then, has the rebalance fared? Assessments of the policy have unfortunately been either based on a snapshot of a particular point in time pegged to specific developments – such as the slow movement on the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) in Congress or the unexpected rise of Rodrigo Duterte in the Philippines – or limited to specific issue areas, such as U.S.-China relations or the South China Sea. In fact, such assessments are rather poor ways to judge what amounts to a comprehensive strategic reorientation of U.S. policy.

A far better way of assessing the rebalance is to ask how this strategic reorientation of U.S. foreign policy has played out on the domestic, regional, and global fronts, since all three are essential to its execution. Or, more specifically, to what extent has the Obama administration been successful at refocusing the domestic on the Asia-Pacific; how effective has the United States been in implementing its strategies in the region; and what has the impact of the policy been in terms of how Washington deals with the rest of the world? On all three accounts, progress has been mixed and the jury is still out.

Domestically, the administration deserves credit for deepening bureaucratic attention to the Asia-Pacific. To display its seriousness about regional multilateralism, for instance, it created a new Office of Multilateral Affairs at the State Department’s Bureau of East Asian and Pacific Affairs, stationed a U.S. ambassador to ASEAN in Jakarta, and committed the president himself to attending the East Asia Summit and holding annual U.S.-ASEAN Leaders’ Meetings in spite of his busy schedule. That is no small feat, since the most valuable commodity in U.S. foreign policy is the president’s time.

But there have also been challenges on the domestic front. The example often advanced to symbolize U.S. domestic difficulties in implementing the rebalance is TPP, but that is actually a rather poor illustration. Although the agreement has not been inked under Obama, it is not uncommon for trade deals of its ilk to be held up in Congress and even approved in the following administration (as was the case when Obama signed three Bush-era free trade deals with South Korea, Colombia, and Panama).

The real problem has been that progress on this front has been uneven across different agencies, and resourcing has often been a challenge amid the U.S. economic recovery as well as sequestration. Even on the defense side – which has seen the most progress amongst the various lines of effort, relatively speaking – budget caps have significantly constrained the resources that can be devoted to implementing the rebalance, despite the best efforts of policymakers to creatively protect certain line items from cuts.

Regionally, the Obama administration has successfully sent a message to the Asia-Pacific that the United States is serious about upping its regional commitment. The flashier examples of this are achievements like the convening of the first-ever summit with Southeast Asian leaders at Sunnylands in February, one of the clearest manifestations of the administration’s increased emphasis on Southeast Asia – the so-called “rebalance” within the “rebalance” (See: “Why the US ASEAN Sunnylands Summit Matters”).

But other more mundane signals, like institutionalizing U.S. relationships with emerging and established partners through strategic and comprehensive partnerships, are equally if not more important and deserve praise (See: “US Strategic Partnerships in the Asia-Pacific”). As Daniel Kritenbrink, the senior director for Asian affairs in the Obama administration’s National Security Council, reminded an audience at the U.S.-ASEAN Business Council in October, institutionalization is important because it helps ease regional fears about the sustainability of America’s presence.

Yet certain aspects of that commitment have also come under scrutiny. For example, on China policy, the administration’s desire to ease insecurities and collaborate on issues like climate change – initially dubbed “strategic reassurance” – coincided with an increasingly confident and at times assertive Beijing, particularly after Xi Jinping’s ascension to the presidency. In the South China Sea in particular, which some view as a key test of U.S. credibility, the administration repeatedly struggled to find a way to respond to China’s calibrated assertiveness (See: “US South China Sea Policy After the Ruling: Opportunities and Challenges”).

Another major criticism is on the democracy and human rights front. Administration officials are correct when they tirelessly argue that they have promoted American ideals through newer, arguably nimbler ways such as town hall meetings featuring the president and the Young Southeast Asian Leaders Initiative (YSEALI). But the fact remains that in some cases, such as Malaysia, the line that the United States has taken has been softer than it could have been, reflecting a bias in favor of realizing new opportunities rather than being hamstrung by old challenges (See for instance: “Why Obama’s Lifting of the Vietnam Arms Embargo Matters”).

Globally, the Obama administration has been somewhat successful in getting established and emerging powers to come together to help solve global problems such as climate change. It has also been able to manage a series of crises – from the Iranian nuclear program to the situation in Iraq and Afghanistan – using a mix of diplomacy and limited engagement while drawing down the heavy U.S. presence in the Middle East that had consumed so much of America’s time, attention and resources.

Yet at the same time, that restraint has at times proved a double-edged sword for U.S. Asia policy. For instance, in its determination to not enter another Middle Eastern quagmire, the administration infamously went back on its “red line” pledge in Syria, which was read to be a blow to U.S. commitment with ripples that went out to the Asia-Pacific.

The Obama administration’s hasty withdrawal from the Middle East and refusal to get involved in Syria is also partly blamed for the rise and spread of the Islamic State, whose tentacles have now spread to Southeast Asia (though it must be said that this is a rather tricky balance, since the subregion is also vulnerable when Washington intervenes — See: “ASEAN’s Islamic State Conundrum“). By not acting sooner, the administration has also arguably narrowed the options of its successor, thereby increasing the likelihood of the heavier U.S. presence that Obama sought to prevent in the first place. Time and time again, the charge has been that after years of overcommitment during the Bush administration, the Obama administration has swung the pendulum too far in the direction of restraint, thereby leaving vacuums filled by new threats and emboldened adversaries and compounding the problems for its successor.

The Next Administration

Given this mixed inheritance, what should Obama’s successor do? To continue the rebalance, the next administration will have to confront lingering challenges, seize new opportunities, and strengthen the foundation on which U.S. policy is built.

The first and most immediate task of the next administration will be confronting a daunting set of domestic, regional, and global challenges. Domestically, the next president will have to manage both the wave of populist discontent that has at times threatened to undermine the bipartisan consensus on Asia policy – centered around the twin pillars of alliances and free trade – and unresolved budgetary issues that could lead to further underresourcing of the rebalance, especially on the military side (See: “Can Trumpism Survive Without Trump?”).

Furthermore, given the polarization we saw before the election and the mud-slinging we saw during it, irrespective of what kind of mandate the polls offer, the next president will likely have to govern with a divided populace and as well as a contested legislature, thereby sapping political capital that could otherwise be devoted to a more activist foreign policy (See: “Trump or Clinton, Challenges Ahead for US Asia Policy”). For the first time in a quarter century, the United States could well end up with a one-term president.

The task abroad is no less difficult, with a complex set of threats that will test the administration’s ability to keep its focus on Asia. As the administration contends with regional challenges such as an increasingly confident and capable China and a nuclear North Korea, it will also have to grapple with other issues that threaten to consume its attention, including a prickly Russia, fractured Europe, dangerous Islamic State, and tumultuous Middle East.

Furthering the rebalance is not just about tackling familiar challenges, but thinking up new opportunities. On the economic side, one area ripe for fresh ideas is how the United States and some of its partners, like Japan, can better leverage their strengths to engage regional actors as China’s growing heft tilts the healthy competition for economic influence in its favor.

Of course, the way in which the United States does economic statecraft and aid disbursement is different from countries like China or Japan, and Washington’s advantages may chiefly lie in shaping norms and building capacity through longer-term initiatives like TPP. There have also been some good ideas advanced over the past few years, with initial talk of a U.S. regional infrastructure facility and, more recently, the public roll out of the broader U.S.-ASEAN Connect initiative (See: “Obama Unveils New ASEAN Economic Initiative at Sunnylands Summit”) .

But Washington needs to go beyond just marketing or coordinating the various existing U.S. lines of effort. And longer-term measures must be supplemented by shorter-term, impactful ones that are in line with U.S. interests and ideals but also aligned with the interests of regional leaders working on a shorter time horizon and to the benefit of the populations of these countries to generate goodwill.

On the security side, maritime security will continue to be a priority area. Much of the attention will likely be placed on the South China Sea, especially if Beijing continues its quest to turn the sea into a Chinese lake. Though the U.S.-led Southeast Asia Maritime Security Initiative (MSI) has been a good first step to advancing an important longer-term goal of building a common operating picture in the region and boosting U.S. defense relationships with regional actors, U.S. policymakers must think about how to better utilize the full range of American as well as allied and partner capabilities – including coast guard assets – to blunt China’s future bouts of calibrated assertiveness in the near-term (See: “America’s New Maritime Security Initiative for Southeast Asia”).

Beyond the South China Sea, U.S. policymakers should foster collaboration with regional actors in other key waterways as well. For instance, given the relatively growing attention to transnational threats as well as the recent subregional cooperation already underway in the form of trilateral patrols, the Sulu Sea is one additional front where Washington may be able to play a role (See: “Confronting Threats in the Sulu-Sulawesi Seas: Opportunities and Challenges”). Of course, this would depend on the demand signal from regional states as well, with the Regional Maritime Security Initiative (RMSI) launched in 2004 during the George W. Bush administration being a cautionary tale about the importance of proper messaging.

On the democracy and human rights front, the next administration must publicly articulate a clear U.S. approach to the issue in the region for the 21st century during its first year in office. Such an approach would both acknowledge recent regional trends – from a rising and more empowered middle class to the mixed picture for democracy in the region; from setbacks in Thailand and China to limited successes like the opening in Myanmar – but also reiterate Washington’s longstanding role in promoting democracy and human rights and reinvigorate the way in which it does so. With elections in Malaysia and Cambodia coming up in 2018, both of which could see historic transitions or contested outcomes, Washington would do well to get ahead of events. Besides, promoting rights ought to be viewed not just as a challenge, but an opportunity to advance a critical part of the so-called rules-based order.

Beyond these functional areas, the next administration should also advance opportunities with key states in the region. Managing the U.S. relationship with an increasingly capable and confident China will be a key priority, and, as with the previous few administrations, the next will have its own learning curve when it comes to dealing with Beijing. The next president too will end up with some mix of engagement and balancing.

But within this “management” process, it would behoove the administration to at least seek a few tangible, practical demonstrative projects on which it can cooperate with China in the Asia-Pacific. U.S. officials say some such efforts have been met with frustration in the past and that more often than not, it is far easier to collaborate in regions other than Asia. But it is still worth pressing the issue. Getting to something, however symbolic, would be a powerful signal to the rest of the region that both powers are committed to a constructive relationship, especially if it is in areas of pressing need like infrastructure development. It is not enough for the U.S.-China relationship to just go global; it should try to go regional as well where it is possible.

Even as it looks for additional avenues for cooperation with China, the next administration should also continue to find new opportunities to advance collaboration within the growing U.S. alliance and partnership network in the Asia-Pacific, or, in narrower, defense terms, the principled security network (See: “US Hits Right Note at Shangri-La with Principled Security Network”).

When I asked U.S. Defense Secretary Ash Carter about the quadrilateral – the growing alignment between Australia, India, Japan, and the United States – he said that Washington’s goal was to “just keep going,” broadening the “ever-widening networks of activity” in the Asia-Pacific (See: “Return of Asia’s Quad Natural: US Defense Chief”). For the next administration, this might mean advancing newer formalized alignments like the U.S.-India-Japan trilateral dialogue, or starting new ones with other emerging powers such as the U.S.-Japan-Vietnam trilateral, which has already been taking place at the non-official level (See: “The Future of US-Japan-Vietnam Trilateral Cooperation”).

There may also be additional opportunities to boost cooperation with U.S. partners who are also in the process of “rebalancing” in the Asia-Pacific as well. To cite just one, with Taiwan’s new president Tsai Ing-wen’s New Southbound Policy focused on Southeast Asia, there may be opportunities for the United States and Taiwan to collaborate in certain areas like the digital economy as part of the Global Cooperation Training Framework Program (GCTF) that was recently signed between the two sides.

Apart from overcoming challenges and thinking up opportunities, perhaps the most challenging part of furthering the rebalance is strengthening the domestic base, which serves as the foundation for realizing opportunities and tackling challenges in the first place. Part of this is about bringing along the American people and the wider U.S. policy apparatus more effectively to sustain the United States’ increased regional commitment. Former senior U.S. policymakers, including Kurt Campbell, one of the architects of the rebalance, have suggested several proposals that could help accomplish this, whether it be several presidential speeches delivered domestically that emphasize Asia’s importance to an American audience, or the issuance of a single, publicly available document that articulates the administration’s Asia strategy to ensure better coordination amongst agencies.

Another aspect of this is fostering more effective policymaking. This is not simply about boosting or shrinking resources or staff in specific bodies such as the stretched State Department’s Bureau of East Asian and Pacific Affairs (EAP) or the increasingly bloated National Security Council, as some have suggested. It is also about understanding how to make interagency cooperation more effective. For example, though the need for various agencies to be involved in the U.S.-ASEAN Connect initiative is understandable, those in the region familiar with the program routinely complain that as a result, the initiative has become rather unwieldy and its future direction is unclear.

A final aspect is continuing to be clear-eyed about U.S. interests in spite of rising threat perceptions and occasional ideological impulses. At certain points – be it the reaction to Japan’s rise in the 1980s, the response to the Asian financial crisis in the 1990s, or the mindset following the September 11, 2001 attacks – there has been a tendency for U.S. policymakers to overreact to threats or respond impulsively without considering what the regional reaction might be. As we now see the rise of another Asian power as well as another wave of terrorism, the next administration should respond decisively but also ensure that it calibrates threats with opportunities, and interests and ideals, in its worldview. After all, it is worth remembering that it was the post-9/11 environment that prompted the course correction that was the U.S. rebalance in the first place.

Prashanth Parameswaran is an associate editor at The Diplomat magazine based in Washington, D.C. and a doctoral candidate at The Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University.