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 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

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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Problems with the Asia Pivot

Washington has a credibility problem in the region

Tom Donilon, the U.S. national security advisor, was at the Asia Society in New York last week to talk (transcript here; video here) about the Obama administration’s effort to shift Washington’s strategic focus away from the military quagmires of the Greater Middle East to the dynamism of Asia – a region where, as the president puts it, “the action’s going to be.”  Unveiled to much fanfare (here and here) in late 2011, this signature initiative – variously known as the “pivot” or the strategic “rebalance” – is all about shoring up the U.S. presence in a vital region that is increasingly under the sway of an ascendant China.  Mr. Obama’s trip to Southeast Asia last November, for example, featured two countries – Myanmar and Cambodia – that no president had visited before, and was designed as one commentator put it to reverse “China’s drive to tighten its grip” on the region.

The administration has devoted high-profile resources to the pivot, as demonstrated by the president’s commitment to participate in the East Asia Summit’s annual meetings – a serious expenditure of time given the travel distance.  And Donilon’s appearance at the Asia Society is the second time he had given a major address on the region in the past few months (first time here). Yet despite these efforts, many in Asia still question America’s staying power and the administration’s determination to see through its two key regional efforts – the buildup of military forces that is plainly directed against China, and 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. Continue reading