Did Obama Set Trump Up for Failure in Asia?

Obama PivotDonald Trump is encountering a fusillade of criticism alleging that his approach to Asia is creating a vacuum that will be eagerly filled by Beijing.  But those making this argument would be much more honest if they acknowledged that part of the blame lies with Trump’s predecessor as well.

That Barack Obama deserves censure was made plain in a recent Washington Post interview with Max Baucus, the immediate past U.S. ambassador in China, who offered a remarkably critical appraisal of Mr. Obama’s leadership skills and policy toward Beijing.  Indeed, his remarks underscore long-time criticisms regarding Obama’s leadership shortcomings, as well as the real problem his administration faced in matching fine words and good intentions with concrete foreign policy actions.

One of the complaints Baucus registered concerns the fate of the “Trans-Pacific Partnership” (TPP), the Obama administration’s project to build a U.S.-centric trade bloc in East Asia that would have brought together 12 countries and nearly 40 percent of the global economy.  The TPP was a key component to Obama’s signature foreign policy initiative – variously known as the “pivot” or the strategic “rebalance” – aimed at shoring up the U.S. presence in a region that is increasingly under Chinese sway.

As Singapore’s prime minister Lee Hsien Loong declared last year to U.S. business executives, ratification of the ambitious trade and investment agreement was widely seen in Asia as “a litmus test of your credibility and seriousness of purpose.”  TPP was denounced by both major candidates during the recent U.S. presidential campaign and officially torpedoed by the new Trump administration.  But even as the agreement was being negotiated, there were widespread suspicions about whether the Obama White House had the political gumption to see through the Congressional approval process.

Baucus makes clear that Obama himself deserves part of the blame for the TPP debacle.  The newspaper quotes him as saying:

The [Obama] administration didn’t have the same zeal, the single-minded, mongoose-tenacity to get the thing passed that [U.S. Trade Representative] Mike Froman and several others in the bus had.  The president didn’t get involved nearly as much as I thought he could and should. 

Criticism of Mr. Obama’s leadership skills are nothing new.  Leon E. Panetta, the Democratic Party’s elder statesman who served as his second Pentagon chief, highlighted this inadequacy in a recent memoir, particularly what he calls the president’s “most conspicuous weakness” – “a frustrating reticence to engage his opponents and rally support for his cause.”  Obama, he added, sometimes lacks fire, preferring instead to rely “on the logic of a law professor rather than the passion of a leader.”  As a result, Obama “avoids the battle, complains, and misses opportunities.”

Just before the memoir’s release, a senior Obama administration official conceded Panetta’s point, acknowledging that the president’s leadership style was “much more that of the lawyer than the CEO.”  Too often, and on too many important policy issues, Obama conceived of the presidency as an exercise in thought leadership rather than the engine for the messy politicking a pluralist democracy requires.  As a Bloomberg View columnist summed up on Obama’s last day in office,

… to make policy work, you need politics. And politics is not about white papers. It is about making unsatisfactory deals and calling in favors from your friends, friends you usually made by helping them out with an unsatisfactory deal of their own. An intellectual approach to policy-making that tried to bypass those unseemly details, it turned out, didn’t necessarily result in good policy.

Obama’s frequent detachment from the policy process led to a huge disjuncture between his promise on shifting strategic focus to Asia – a region where the president once said “the action’s going to be” and “Here, we see the future” – and his actual accomplishments on this score.   Unveiled to much fanfare (here and here) in late 2011, the Obama administration placed great rhetorical emphasis on the Asian pivot.  In early 2013, Tom Donilon, the U.S. national Security advisor, proclaimed that “when it comes to the Asia-Pacific, the United States is ‘all in’.”  Later that year, his successor, Susan Rice, insisted the pivot was “a cornerstone of the Obama administration’s foreign policy.”  A few months before the administration’s term ended, she emphasized the president’s “profound commitment to the Asia Rebalance.”

But for all of these professions, Baucus states that the administration was never able to devise a coherent, sustainable policy for dealing with a rising China: “We’re much too ad hoc.  We don’t seem to have a long-term strategy, and that’s very much to our disadvantage.”

Indeed, many long questioned Obama’s determination to see through not only TPP’s implementation but also the buildup of military forces necessary to contest a more assertive China.  Just months before launching the pivot, he undermined his own credibility by signing into law the 2011 Budget Control Act and then did nothing in subsequent years to relieve the sharp pressures it imposed on the U.S. defense budget.  In March 2014, for example, the Pentagon’s acquisitions chief acknowledged that “Right now, the pivot is being looked at again, because candidly it can’t happen [due to budget pressures].”  At the same time, a Japanese official told the New York Times, “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.”

As a consequence of Mr. Obama’s failure to back up his rhetoric with the necessary fiscal resources, the U.S. military currently confronts a severe readiness deficit at a time when Chinese military strength is noticeably increasing.  The U.S. Navy was slated to play a central role in the pivot, yet two-thirds of its mainstay F/A-18 strike fighters are currently grounded due to lack of spare parts or maintenance backlogs.   Overall, more than half of the service’s aircraft inventory – including fighters, transport, patrol and reconnaissance planes as well as helicopters – are presently out of service.  The U.S. Army reports that only three of its 58 combat brigade teams are capable of immediate deployment, while the U.S. Air Force states that it is “now able to keep only half of our force at an acceptable level of readiness.”  Astoundingly, U.S. military leaders recently testified that President Obama never personally discussed this readiness crisis with them.

These problems have not gone unnoticed in Beijing.  A new Chinese navy internal assessment concludes that China has now secured military supremacy in the South China Sea and that the United States “lacks both the ability and will to engage in a military conflict or go to war with us.”

Nor has the situation escaped notice among long-time U.S. allies.  Philippines’ president Rodrigo Duterte, for example, stated last September that “China is now in power and they have military superiority in the region.”

And a recent Australian analysis concludes that “China now has the strategic initiative in South East Asia.”  It adds:

China now dominates militarily the central ASEAN region.  In times of peace and crisis, this military capability could be used to intimidate, bully or cajole regional states.  In times of limited regional war, China is now the odds-on favorite.

Donald Trump may well be hastening the day when American leadership in East Asia is eclipsed by China.  But if that were to happen, one should not lose sight of the previous president’s role.

UPDATE (March 29): A Financial Times article today reports:

Even some US officials privately acknowledge that China has won the battle for the South China Sea without firing a shot. In the annals of American decline, this episode will surely loom large….

….Much of the fault lies with Barack Obama, the former US president, and Hillary Clinton, his secretary of state.

An earlier version of this essay appears at Asia Sentinel.

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Obama’s Incredibly Shrinking Foreign Policy Vision

President Obama’s trip to East Asia last month was all about shoring up America’s position in a region where a resurgent China is steadily engaged in revising the status quo.  But the most memorable part of the visit ended up being the diminished vision Mr. Obama projected of his own foreign policy.

Speaking at a press conference in Manila, Obama defended his conduct of foreign affairs in a way that was at once impassioned and uninspiring.  His approach, he argued, “may not always be sexy.  [It] may not always attract a lot of attention, and it doesn’t make for good argument on Sunday morning shows.  But it avoids errors.  You hit singles, you hit doubles; every once in a while we may be able to hit a home run.”

The minimalist vision Mr. Obama articulated was incongruous coming amid a tour designed to impress upon U.S. allies that the strategic shift to Asia, his signature foreign policy initiative, was still very much on track.  All the more so at a gathering alongside Philippine President Benigno Aquino, whom he ostensibly wanted to reassure about U.S. steadfastness in the face of China’s  revanchist behavior.  Indeed, his words were a far cry from Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton’s strong rebuke of Beijing’s territorial claims in the South China Sea four years earlier. Continue reading

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. Continue reading

The China Hype is now being tested in Asia

Criticizing the conventional wisdom about the inevitability of China’s global ascendancy and American strategic decline is a regular preoccupation for this page.  Indeed, a recent post took aim at the prevailing notion, subscribed to by a wide-ranging group that includes Barack Obama and Sarah Palin, that Beijing can translate its vast holdings of dollar-denominated assets into policy leverage vis-à-vis Washington.  So, it’s worth underscoring several developments this week that bear on these points.

One is a commentary piece by Ian Bremmer, the high-profile political risk guru who during the height of the China hype a few years ago was advising (herehere and here) that the future belonged to state-managed capitalism that Beijing, among others, practices.  Yet in a New York Times op-ed piece a few days back, he concedes that …

… although China’s economic influence is growing — it is now the lead trade partner for 124 countries, compared to just 76 for the United States — its power to influence other nations is slight. It has achieved little of what policymakers call ‘capture,’ a condition in which economic or security dependence of one country on another allows the more powerful to drive the other’s policy making.

And he concludes that “neither China nor anyone else appears ready and able to fill America’s superpower shoes.”

Bremmer was hardly alone in his prophesying about how the explosive growth rates China was then racking up would reshape the contours of international politics.   Economic policy expert Arvind Subramanian, for instance, colorfully opined that America’s growing financial dependence could eventually allow China to evict the United States from its long-established strategic position in the western Pacific.  Like Bremmer, he too has now walked back this view.

And events currently playing out in the skies over the East China Sea have so far failed to conform to Subramanian’s expectations.  It is unclear what prompted China’s attempt to establish unilateral control over the area’s airspace, though the move could be related to the growing demands in Beijing that Washington show greater deference toward China’s strategic interests in East Asia.  The New York Times quotes a White House adviser as saying:

‘It’s pretty clear this isn’t really about the [Senkaku islands dispute].’ Declining to speak on the record about a sensitive strategic issue, the official added that it was about a desire by some in China, including the People’s Liberation Army and perhaps the new political leadership, ‘to assert themselves in ways that until recently they didn’t have the military capability to make real.’

The adviser added: ‘They say it’s in response to our efforts to contain them, but our analysis is that it’s really their effort to push our presence further out into the Pacific.’

Philip Stephens, the foreign affairs columnist at the Financial Times, has come to the same conclusion.

But whatever the Chinese calculus, the prompt pushback by the United States, in the way of dispatching military aircraft unannounced into the zone as well as vocally reaffirming the U.S.-Japan security alliance, is at odds with the Subramanian thesis.

Australia is an excellent case study for whether China can use its economic power to bend policymaking in other countries.  A staunch U.S. ally and an outpost of American influence in Asia, the country has also benefited mightily in recent years from China’s voracious appetite for mineral resources.  A small but prominent group of opinion leaders has sprung up arguing that Washington, for the sake of global stability, needs to strike new power-sharing arrangements with Beijing in the Asia-Pacific region.  Hugh White, a retired senior defense official, has taken the lead on this front, though he is joined (here and here) by Paul Keating, a former prime minister.  Indeed, the release earlier this year of a new defense white paper spelling out a more conciliatory strategic approach to China seemed to exemplify the kind of policy “capture” that Bremmer talks about.

But the “capture” thesis suffered a sharp rebuke with Tony Abbott’s sweeping election victory three months ago.  The new prime minister in Canberra is unabashedly pro-American, suspicious of Chinese economic influence, and has taken to calling Japan “Australia’s best friend in Asia.”  His government also is siding with Washington and Tokyo in the present crisis over the East China Sea, and has banished the just months-old defense white paper from government websites.

Events in Asia are now furnishing a real-world test for ideas that became fashionable at the peak of the China hype, when we were told incessantly that Beijing was all set to rule the world and that America was in danger of becoming China’s bitch.  So far, however, developments have belied what many would have predicted.

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Obama Can Rebook in Asia, But Can He Deliver?

The cancellation of President Obama’s long-scheduled trip to Asia this week is another setback to his signature foreign policy initiative, the so-called “Asia pivot” that was unveiled to much hoopla (here and here) just two years ago.  But as I detail in a new article published in The Diplomat, U.S. allies and partners had good reason to doubt the administration’s commitment even before the budget drama in Washington forced a change in Mr. Obama’s travel plans.

Some observers (here and here) argue that Obama’s absences at the high-profile Asian leadership summits this week are not really that big a deal, since he can always reschedule.  They point out that President Bill Clinton skipped out on similar meetings in 1995 due to a federal government shutdown and in 1998 due to a crisis over Iraq.  And President George W. Bush cancelled a U.S.-ASEAN leadership forum in Singapore in 2007 because of problems with the Iraq war.  These actions caused grumbles all around, the argument goes, but no real damage to the U.S. brand name in Asia.

But there are major differences in Mr. Obama’s case.  America in the 1990s was widely perceived as at the top of its game; the talk was all about “the unipolar moment” (here and here), soft power and “hyperpower.”  The decline in U.S. defense spending was a matter of the post-Cold War “peace dividend.”  Military interventions and diplomatic activism in the Balkans and the Middle East put to rest fears that the country would retreat into isolationism following the collapse of the Soviet Union.  The information technology revolution and a booming stock market gave new vibrancy to the U.S. economy, so much so that some argued (here and here) that the concept of business cycles had become antiquated.  The nation’s fiscal position was strong, and the White House was engaged on trade policy, from the North American Free Trade Agreement to the establishment of the World Trade Organization and the extension of normal trade status to China.  And Washington’s leadership was seen as key during the 1997-98 Asian financial crisis.

The view of the United States as a nonpareil global power continued well into the George W. Bush era.  Military audaciousness in the Greater Middle East – undertaken seemingly without the need for, or concern to the views of, traditional allies in “Old Europe” – as well as soaring defense budgets reinforced the impression of global preeminence.  Pundits spoke of “an empire to rival Rome,” an “America Unbound,” and of “America Unrivaled.”  Nor was Mr. Bush’s commitment to the trade policy agenda was in doubt.  In Asia, free trade pacts were struck with Singapore, Australia and South Korea – the latter being America’s largest bilateral trade deal.  And although Washington could not close the sale at the Doha Round of global trade negotiations, it was not for a lack of effort.

Now consider how significantly different things are today.  The prominent narrative in world politics is of China’s strategic rise and U.S. decline, with more than a few predicting that China is set to rule the world and America risks becoming Beijing’s bitch.  The U.S. president repeatedly speaks of the need to focus on “nation-building at home.”  Shrinking defense budgets lead many in Asia to question the United States can keep pace with China’s growing military power.  The recovery from the 2007-09 recession is uncertain at best and, as a new Congressional Budget Office report warns, America’s long-term fiscal posture looks increasingly shaky.  Nearly all East Asian countries now count China as their chief trading partner.  Washington’s track record on trade policy is suspect and many doubt that the White House has the political gumption to complete the “Trans-Pacific Partnership” (TPP), its pet project to build a U.S.-centric trade bloc in East Asia.  Singapore, in particular (here and here), has been quite critical of the Obama administration’s failure to exert U.S. economic influence in the region.  And there is a growing inwardness to the country’s psyche, leading some (here and here) to warn of a new bout of isolationism.

The problem with Mr. Obama’s cancellations is that perceptions about global power dynamics have a way of becoming entrenched.  Sure, the president will be able to rebook and the red carpet will always be unrolled for him in Asia’s capitals.  But the key question is whether he will have anything substantive in hand once he shows up.

Pointedly, this question is not being asked about the tour Xi Jinping, China’s new leader, is now making in Southeast Asia, covering much of the same territory that Obama was suppose to visit.  Not only does Xi now have the spotlight all to himself but he is bearing deliverables that matter.  In Indonesia, where trade with China has grown fourfold in the past eight years, he signed $28 billion in trade and investment deals, as well as a $15 billion currency swap agreement that will help shore up the faltering rupiah.  In Malaysia, which has not seen a U.S. presidential visit in nearly 50 years, Xi unveiled plans to expand already booming bilateral trade ties.  And in these countries and elsewhere, he is touting an alternative regional trade initiative that would further diminish U.S. economic influence.

There’s a lesson here for Mr. Obama: As he’s straightening out his travel plans, he needs to aim beyond mere symbolism.

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U.S. and India: The So-So Strategic Dialogue

This year’s session of the annual U.S.-India Strategic Dialogue, which brought Secretary of State John Kerry to New Delhi two weeks ago, produced few headlines.  The gathering was preceded by low expectations as well as talk (here and here) about how bilateral affairs have plateaued in the years since the nuclear cooperation agreement between President George W. Bush and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh.  Nonetheless, there are some things going in the relationship that are worthy of note.  Here is a rundown. Continue reading

U.S.-India Strategic Dialogue: What Not To Do

Secretary of State John F. Kerry is in New Delhi for the annual U.S.-India Strategic Dialogue.  He’s receiving plenty of good advice (examples herehere and here) on what he and Salman Khurshid, the Indian foreign minister, can do to energize the nascent strategic partnership that just a few years ago looked so promising but which now is stuck in a rut.  But Mr. Kerry might make greater progress in firming up the bilateral relationship if he is guided by a “not to do” list.

This is Mr. Kerry’s first visit to India since assuming his new role a few months ago.  He will arrive in New Delhi without his predecessor’s well-known sentimental attachment to the country and disadvantaged by Indian suspicions (here and here) that he cares more for Pakistan as well as broader concerns that his real focus is the Middle East and not Asia.  Also not helping matters are Indian misgivings over a 2011 speech, which came to light during Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel’s confirmation hearing, in which he accused New Delhi of using Afghanistan as a “second front” against Pakistan.  The BBC quoted an Indian official four months ago as saying that “the jury is still out on Kerry and Hagel.”

On the other hand, developments in the last two months might make New Delhi more receptive to offers of deeper geopolitical cooperation than it was when then-U.S. Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta visited a year ago.  The first of these events is the three-week military standoff between India and China in the Ladakh region of Kashmir in April.  Although the incident was resolved without violence and even had the feel of a Gilbert and Sullivan comic opera, it came at a time when New Delhi was still smarting over the 50th anniversary of the 1962 Himalayan border war with Beijing.  The impact became clear during Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s visit to Japan last month, when both countries moved to deepen their security relations as a hedge against Chinese strategic behavior.  At a time when Beijing is trying to isolate Tokyo regionally, Mr. Singh declared that “India and Japan have a shared vision of a rising Asia” and that “We have shared interests in maritime security.”  The agreement to hold regular naval exercises between the two countries was an unambiguous rebuke to China.

Add to this reports that Singh will visit Washington in the coming months, and it appears that New Delhi just may be warming up to the Panetta overtures for closer strategic collaboration as well as the exhortations by Hillary Clinton two years ago that India play a more prominent role in East Asia.

To be sure, New Delhi’s deeply-rooted desire for foreign policy autonomy places real limits on just how closely India will align itself with the United States.  But this doesn’t mean that Washington can do little to enhance the likelihood of greater security cooperation.  Indeed, two essential things come immediately to mind: 1.) Don’t pull an Iraq in Afghanistan; and 2.) Don’t backtrack on the much-ballyhooed strategic re-focus on Asia. Continue reading