pivottoasia

Autor: Dominik Hodboď (IMS FSV UK)

In an article published in Foreign Policy magazine in October 2011, the then US Secretary of State, Ms Hillary Clinton argued that the main point of focus for the USA abroad should be the Asia-Pacific region.[1] In her article she defends the steps Mr Obama, the president, had undertaken in order to strengthen ties with US allies of the region and to improve cooperation with other countries there, she also stresses the importance of future US engagement across the Pacific Ocean, especially economic one.[2] Mr Obama continued to reinforce Ms Clinton’s opinion by engaging more in US-Pacific cooperation, underlined by hosting the first APEC summit after almost two decades on US soil in November 2011 and addressing the Australian parliament with words of assurance that the USA was „there to stay“.[3] Particularly at this time debates arose about US „pivot“ to Asia and what it meant for all the concerned countries but also for US allies elsewhere in the world, mainly Europe.[4] The aim of this short essay is to show what changes the pivot has made so far to the US foreign interests, what progress has been made in the US-East Asia cooperation and what are the main obstacles delaying further integration in the region.

Retreat from Europe?

A “pivot” to Asia would suggest that the USA is moving away from somewhere, an idea that troubles particularly US European allies. However, as we can see in Ms Clinton’s article, the former US Secretary of State praises the progress the USA has made in cooperation with Europe after World War II and the Transatlantic harmony should serve as a model for US-Asia cooperation rather than something Mr Obama should now leave behind.[5] This position was recently reiterated by the president in the atmosphere of ongoing Ukraine crisis in Talinn where he reassured the Baltic states and other NATO allies that America would come to help should there be a serious threat from Russia.[6] Therefore the pivot to Asia is not meant as a retreat from Europe. It is, however, meant as a retreat from Middle East, as Ms Clinton advised three years ago, USA should no longer be engaged militarily in Iraq and Afghanistan, neither should the soldiers come home and stay there, they ought to, as she suggested, rebalance to Asia in order to provide US allies there with confidence of security and open new business possibilities beneficiary for all the interested parties.[7]

Following the line

This was the shift in US foreign policy announced three years ago. An obvious question arises when talking about this issue in retrospect, did Mr Obama really follow this reorientation in foreign policy? What steps did he make in order to achieve closer cooperation with East Asia countries?

The core of the cooperation is many bilateral and multilateral meetings within key multinational organizations.[8] Here are some examples of organizations within which the Pacific countries cooperate.

Possibly the main platform on which the closer Pacific integration should take place is the proposed free trade agreement Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) including of course, the USA. Mr Obama leans toward finishing the negotiations and is confident about achieving consent between the negotiating parties but it needs to be said, he faces many challenges on both domestic and foreign fields, which are described below.[9]

Another sign that Mr Obama acts in accordance with this foreign policy is hosting the first ever US-ASEAN defense meeting on US soil earlier this year.[10] This marks an important military cooperation between southeastern Asia military organization and the USA.

Another organization is APEC, aimed at economic cooperation. As is mentioned above, as a sign of moving towards East Asia, the USA hosted its CEO Summit in November 2011 (after 18 years on US soil), few days after Ms Clinton published her article and few days before Mr Obama addressed the Australian Parliament (also mentioned above). Last year, however, due to domestic issues (mostly government shutdown) the president missed APEC CEO Summit in Indonesia. This raised eyebrows of East Asian leaders and the US commitment to East Asia pivot started to be questioned.

When evaluating if Mr Obama is really devoted to his Asian pivot, it is necessary to look at the region from which he meant to retreat. Around the same time of Ms Clinton’s article, hosting APEC summit and speech in Canberra, Mr Obama announced the USA would withdraw all its troops from Iraq by the end of 2011 which happened on December 18.[11] In Afghanistan, US troops remain and are to stay there until 2017 by the recent Bilateral Security Agreement (after 2017, few hundred military advisors should keep on working in Afghanistan) while gradually decreasing in numbers.[12] From these events it looks as if the USA really retreats from Iraq and Afghanistan, one country left, the other one set to be left in three years. Nevertheless, recent developments show that the USA can’t really leave the Middle East (at least not now), which is described below.

 

Obstacles in following the Asian pivot policy

Mr Obama many times repeated he wishes to step from the Mid-East and focus on the Pacific region. Various events wouldn’t allow him to do so.

The main issue is the deterioration of the crisis in the Middle East. In Syria, Mr Obama from its beginning was reluctant to engage in the civil war (which is in line with his foreign policy ideas) but recently authorized air strikes there (coincidentally against the side he pondered aiding at first). The same applies to Iraq, against the same enemy (ISIL), the US army proceeds with targeted air strikes. Therefore the USA can’t rebalance its military capacities to East Asia as they are forced to solve the Iraq and Syria crisis caused by brutal insurgency of radical Islamists.

Another issue is the conflict over Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands. On one hand it proves that the USA is ready to back its ally, Japan (Japanese were given reassurances of US support), possibly further getting these two countries closer. On the other hand it creates a serious problem for integrating with China, APEC member and potential TPP signatory.

There are also several key hurdles in the economic area of cooperation. The proposed TPP negotiations are currently deadlocked mostly because Japanese demands on US lift of car import tariffs and US demands to Japan to lift agriculture products import tariffs.[13] There is also the matter of currency manipulation. The Bank of Japan is currently making steps to devaluate the yen in order to strengthen exports (and decrease deflation). This manipulation is not seen positively from Japanese trading partners.[14] For the TPP the US-Japanese relationship is absolutely essential as it accounts for 80 percent of the economic output of TPP countries.[15]

Mr Obama doesn’t face obstacles in his Asian pivot only abroad. There is big domestic opposition to the TPP (as well as the Trans-Atlantic Trade and Investment Partnership with Europe), especially to the president’s demand on acquiring so called fast-track trade authority, which would allow him to negotiate a foreign deal without Congressional revision.[16]

Key question is of course, the Chinese stance on any potential Pacific integration, the position it decides to take towards TPP and the solution of Senkaku/Diaoyu stalemate will be absolutely essential for any working Pacific cooperation. After all, China is the region’s largest economy and is impossible to be left out of any meaningful regional economic cooperation.

Conclusion

Three years ago, Mr Obama set his foreign policy aiming to rebalance US engagement from troublesome region which became a headache to many US administrations and focus on seemingly very promising region instead. Previous engagement in the Mid-East, however, wouldn’t allow him to retreat from the region completely and as there are even American citizens being brutally murdered, he is forced to act. The ISIL insurgency as well as the Ukraine crisis is now unfortunately the top issue on US foreign policy agenda and it drains the energy and capacities for further integration with East Asia. With what energy and capacities he has left Mr Obama seems to try to proceed with Pacific integration where he faces additional hindrances in discussions mainly over import tariffs. At home he is obstructed by unions fearing for their worker’s jobs in face of potential Asian competition, as well as by opposition of politicians in some cases even from his own party. It seems then that rebalancing to Asia is a hard job to do for the American president and it might get even harder with the Republicans controling the Senate.

Notes

[1] Hillary Clinton, „America’s Pacific Century,“ Foreign Policy 189 (Nov 2011) 56-63, http://web.a.ebscohost.com/ehost/detail/detail?vid=5&sid=fafba2b3-625b-4eb7-96cd-3f56ca44f3a2%40sessionmgr4005&hid=4207&bdata=Jmxhbmc9Y3Mmc2l0ZT1laG9zdC1saXZl#db=a9h&AN=67185194 (accessed October 26, 2014).

[2] Ibid.

[3] „America in the Asia-Pacific“, http://www.economist.com/node/21538803 (accessed October 26 2014).

[4] Ibid.

[5] Hillary Clinton, „America’s Pacific Century,“ Foreign Policy 189 (Nov 2011) 56-63, http://web.a.ebscohost.com/ehost/detail/detail?vid=5&sid=fafba2b3-625b-4eb7-96cd-3f56ca44f3a2%40sessionmgr4005&hid=4207&bdata=Jmxhbmc9Y3Mmc2l0ZT1laG9zdC1saXZl#db=a9h&AN=67185194 (accessed October 26, 2014).

[6] „Remarks by President Obama to the People of Estonia“, http://www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/2014/09/03/remarks-president-obama-people-estonia (accessed October 29, 2014).

[7] Hillary Clinton, „America’s Pacific Century,“ Foreign Policy 189 (Nov 2011) 56-63, http://web.a.ebscohost.com/ehost/detail/detail?vid=5&sid=fafba2b3-625b-4eb7-96cd-3f56ca44f3a2%40sessionmgr4005&hid=4207&bdata=Jmxhbmc9Y3Mmc2l0ZT1laG9zdC1saXZl#db=a9h&AN=67185194 (accessed October 26, 2014).

[8] Kurt Campbell and Brian Andrews, „Explaining the US ‘Pivot’ to Asia“ Chatham House (London: Chatham House, 2013) 6-7.

[9] „Obama’s Critical Moment on the Trans-Pacific Partnership“, http://blogs.cfr.org/renewing-america/2014/04/22/obamas-critical-moment-on-the-trans-pacific-partnership-tpp/ (accessed October 29, 2014).

[10] „Combating Climate Change: Secretary Hagel Hosts the U.S.-ASEAN Defense Forum“, http://www.whitehouse.gov/blog/2014/04/03/combating-climate-change-secretary-hagel-hosts-us-asean-defense-forum (accessed October 29, 2014).

[11] „Last US troops withdraw from Iraq“, http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-middle-east-16234723 (accessed October 29, 2014).

[12] „U.S. and Afghanistan sign vital, long-delayed security pact“, http://www.washingtonpost.com/world/us-afghanistan-sign-security-pact-to-allow-american-forces-to-remain-in-country/2014/09/30/48f555ce-4879-11e4-a046-120a8a855cca_story.html (accessed October 29, 2014).

[13] „Obama’s Critical Moment on the Trans-Pacific Partnership“, http://blogs.cfr.org/renewing-america/2014/04/22/obamas-critical-moment-on-the-trans-pacific-partnership-tpp/ (accessed October 29, 2014).

[14] Ibid.

[15] Ibid.

[16] „When Harry mugged Barry“, http://www.economist.com/news/united-states/21595958-harry-reid-threatens-impoverish-world-least-600-billion-year-when-harry (accessed October 29, 2014)