Obama Arrives in Asia Empty-Handed

Last fall, US President Barack Obama’s signature foreign policy initiative, the so-called “Asia pivot,” suffered a big setback when the budget mess in Washington forced him to cancel a long-scheduled trip to Asia that was supposed to reassure U.S. allies and partners about the administration’s commitment to the region.  I argued back then that while Mr. Obama would always be able to re-book, the key question is whether he will have anything substantive in hand once he shows up.  As the president begins a week-long tour of Japan, South Korea, Malaysia and the Philippines, we now know the answer: No.

The strategic shift to Asia, which Washington launched with much hoopla two years ago, is premised on two key efforts: 1.) the buildup of U.S. military forces that is plainly directed against China, and 2.) the ambitious set of trade and investment negotiations known as the “Trans-Pacific Partnership” (TPP) that would contest Beijing’s economic hegemony in East Asia.  Both initiatives are currently in deep trouble.

Susan Rice, Mr. Obama’s national security advisor, contends that the pivot remains “a cornerstone of the Obama administration’s foreign policy” and calls the president’s trip “an important opportunity to underscore our continued focus on the Asia-Pacific region.”  But many question whether the administration has the budgetary resources to back up its rhetoric.  As one commentator observes, “The whole exercise risks looking like an inversion of Theodore Roosevelt’s famous advice to ‘speak softly and carry a big stick.’ The pivot has generated plenty of loud talk – but the stick looks rather small.”

Last month the Pentagon’s budget gurus pledged in Congressional testimony that they would find a way to sustain the military effort despite the severe cutbacks in defense spending.  Yet at the same time, the Pentagon’s acquisitions chief acknowledged before a defense industry conference that “Right now, the pivot is being looked at again, because candidly it can’t happen [due to budget pressures].”  She quickly retracted her remarks, presumably due to her superiors’ pressure, but the message was telling enough.

All the more so, since Admiral Samuel Locklear, the head of the U.S. Pacific Command, told members of Congress the next day that the resources presently available to him are insufficient to meet operational requirements.  Adding to the effect of these messages was Beijing’s announcement that day that it was hiking military spending by another 12 percent — its largest annual increase in decades.  As the New York Times noted, this was yet “another sign of the country’s goal of becoming a dominant military presence in the Pacific, with a navy able to project power across the region.”

Two weeks later, Admiral Locklear admitted to the Senate Armed Services Committee (here and here) that U.S. forces in Asia lack the capacity to conduct major amphibious operations in the event of conflict, in part because these resources are being diverted to other contingencies in the Middle East and Europe.  At the same hearing, the commander of U.S. forces in Korea acknowledged that he lacked the forces to quickly counter a sudden, large-scale attack by North Korea.

In a separate hearing, Admiral Jonathan Greenert, the U.S. chief of naval operations, said he worries about being able to keep up with China’s military growth. “I’m very concerned” about “our ability to project power in an area against an advanced adversary with those advanced capabilities,” he said. “We’re slipping behind.”  Indeed, the U.S. navy is arguably at its smallest since 1917, with only a third of its entire fleet at sea at any one time, including just three of its 11 aircraft carriers.

Last fall, the U.S. army reported that only two of its 42 brigades were combat-ready and that was before the administration announced plans to scale back the army to pre-World War II levels.  A study commission headed by two former U.S. senators warns that the full brunt of budget sequestration on U.S. military capabilities has yet to take effect, and that the combination of sequester cuts and unaddressed cost increases will erode force readiness, stall modernization, and reduce force levels by at least 50 percent by 2021.

All of these trends have increasingly caused U.S. allies and partners in Asia to doubt America’s staying power.  As a Japanese official told the New York Times recently, “If there’s real rebalancing, it is hard to find.”  Even more trenchant, the newspaper also quotes a long-time Asia hand who worked in the first Obama administration as saying that pivot was “ill conceived and bungled in its implementation.”

The growing perception that the Obama administration lacks resolve in dealing with hostile powers does not help.  Officials in the region point to Mr. Obama’s vacillation over Syria last fall, followed in close order by Washington’s tacit acquiescence to Beijing’s unilateral declaration imposing an expansive air defense identification zone in the East China Sea.  Another mordant example is last month’s yielding to Russia’s annexation of the Crimea peninsula despite the responsibilities America assumed for Ukraine’s security in the December 1994 Budapest Memorandum, which the Obama administration explicitly reaffirmed in a December 2009 joint statement with Moscow.

The Crimean example has stirred great anxiety in Tokyo.  The New York Times quotes a senior U.S. military official as saying that Japanese officials “keep asking, ‘Are you going to do the same thing to us when something happens?’ ” It also quotes a former advisor to Prime Minister Shinzo Abe as saying “The Crimea is a game-changer.  This is not fire on a distant shore for us.  What is happening is another attempt by a rising power to change the status quo.”

The Philippines is still smarting over what it perceives as a lack of U.S. support in a standoff with China over the Scarborough Shoal in the South China Sea two years ago.  Things were not helped when Admiral Greenert was in Manila in February and gave a less than robust response when asked whether Washington would come to aid of the Philippines in the event of further Chinese action: “Of course, we would help you.  I don’t know what that help would be specifically.”

Likewise in doubt is Washington’s commitment to the TPP, which would enable Washington to construct a truly muscular U.S.-centric trade bloc in East Asia that brings together 12 countries and nearly 40 percent of the global economy.  The Obama administration has already missed several self-imposed deadlines for concluding the negotiations and it has not even bothered to vigorously press for so-called “trade promotion authority,” a traditional indicator of serious intent because it puts trade deals on a quick path to Congressional approval.  Indeed, the lack of this authority is the largest obstacle to wrapping up the negotiations, since Japan is reportedly reluctant to make the necessary endgame concessions for fear that the U.S. Congress would come back and demand more.

[UPDATE, April 24: The Associated Press reported today that talks between Tokyo and Washington on the TPP have been suspended, without any resolution in sight.  According to Japan’s economy minister, the negotiations are in a “tough situation.”]

A Republican effort to give the president this authority in September 2011 was opposed by the White House and blocked by Senate Democrats.  Mr. Obama finally got around to requesting it in his State of the Union address in late January, only to be immediately shot down by Democratic leaders in the Senate and the House (here and here).  Two weeks later, the administration waved the white flag when Vice President Joe Biden told House Democratic leaders that the White House understood the reasons for their opposition.

The administration initially billed Mr. Obama’s visit to Tokyo as the moment when the TPP talks would fructify but is now tamping down expectations.  The same thing happened during the president’s trip to Europe last month.  Many expected that he would use the opportunity to breathe new life into negotiations on a trade and investment pact with the European Union.  Yet Obama mentioned the trade deal in public only when asked about it at a press conference, and the Financial Times quotes one senior European diplomat as saying Obama’s behind-the-scenes efforts were at best “passive aggressive.”

On both the military and economic fronts, Mr. Obama this week risks leaving U.S. allies in Asia with a similar sense of disappointment.

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