Photo illustration by John Lyman

World News


Nationalism is Killing Obama’s “Pivot to Asia”

The Obama administration’s “pivot to Asia” has begun to look a little shaky over recent weeks and months. Formulated in the early 2010s, the pivot was supposed to forge closer diplomatic, security and economic ties between America and countries in the Asia-Pacific region, which the U.S. has openly acknowledged will collectively become the political and economic powerhouse of the 21st century. After five years of actively pursuing this objective, American efforts seem to have made little progress.

At the beginning of the year, the U.S. appeared to be making slow but steady headways in the region, having signed the Sunnylands Declaration – an agreement designed to facilitate increased cooperation between America and members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) group. The summer also got off to a good start, with The Hague’s Arbitration Tribunal delivering a scathing rebuke to China’s claims to almost the whole of the South China Sea. Obama welcomed the ruling, saying it had helped clarify maritime rights, despite the tensions it raised. From America’s perspective, everything went downhill from there – and fast.

Fast-forward two months, and a series of major setbacks have all but derailed the pivot.

The Trans-Pacific Partnership (TTP) is facing strong headwinds in the U.S. from both Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, despite repeated pleas from regional leaders over its strategic importance. Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull has urged Congress to ratify the deal, arguing that it represents America’s commitment to the rule of law in the Asia-Pacific region. Speaking in front of U.S. business leaders ahead of the UN general assembly in New York this week, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe was generous with his praise, saying that the long-term strategic value of the agreement was “awesome.”

However, foreign praise of the TPP has done little to engender the support of Americans. Objecting to President Obama’s biggest trade deal, its opponents argue the agreement is based on secret negotiations and would bring in sweeping trade reforms without voters’ knowledge or consent, as well as leading to job losses. With Vice President Joe Biden admitting this week that Congress is unlikely to ratify the TTP trade pact before Obama leaves office at the beginning of next year, it looks all but certain that the deal will be left dead in the water, regardless of who wins this November’s Presidential elections.

If this is the case, the balance of power in the Asia-Pacific region will tilt in favor of China. As far as Obama’s pivot ambitions are concerned, this would be an unmitigated disaster at a time when the forces of nationalism and populism are rearing their ugly heads again in a number of countries in the region. In the Philippines, hardline President Rodrigo Duterte has already shifted the strategic balance towards China by expelling U.S. forces from a base they held in Mindanao and canceling joint sea patrols. Demonstrating exactly how important he views U.S. influence in the region, a bullish Duterte earlier this month called Obama a “son of a bitch,” cautioning the U.S. not to question the Philippines’ policy of extrajudicial killings. Since being elected in May, Duterte has encouraged police and members of the public to kill drug dealers without trial.

Chiding Obama for daring to intervene in his country’s affairs, Duterte defiantly declared that he is “no American puppet,” and that he is only answerable to the Filipino people. While Duterte later expressed regret over his acid- tongued “son of a bitch” insult, he slammed America for inflaming Islamist insurgencies in the region and expressed his desire to buy weapons from Russia and China.

And it’s not just China that has a vested interest in seeing American power wane in the Asia Pacific. The fact that North Korea recently felt empowered enough to conduct its fifth nuclear test is a harbinger of times to come. What’s more, Kim Jong-un is trying to throw a spanner in the trilateral alliance between Seoul, Tokyo and Washington by hyping up nationalist fervor in South Korea over last year’s comfort women agreement, which managed to set aside an issue that had poisoned Korean-Japanese relations since the end of Second World War. President Obama publicly praised Japanese Prime Minister Abe and South Korean President Park for “having the courage and vision to forge a lasting settlement to this difficult issue” but a number of extreme groups with ties to North Korea have been haranguing Seoul, calling the agreement a “diplomatic humiliation,” installing more so-called Statues of Peace (miniatures of young comfort women) across South Korea and urging surviving comfort women to reject the cash payments Tokyo is making under the deal.

North Korea’s belligerent stance feeds into deeply ingrained notions of racial purity prevalent on the Korean peninsula that have traditionally painted Japan as the archenemy of the minjok (the Korean race). It was only thanks to American finesse that Seoul and Tokyo managed to forge closer ties and form a unified front in the face of Pyongyang nuclear ambitions. A reversal of that alliance would only spell even deeper trouble for Washington’s Asian pivot. North Korea will likely continue its efforts to divide strong U.S. allies in Asia.

Gluing together a new security architecture with the U.S. at its center was never going to be an easy feat. The TPP, the freedom of navigation operations in the South China Sea, the weapons deals signed with Asian countries and the relentless negotiations to iron out the kinks within ASEAN countries and beyond, all were tools deployed with the purpose of persuading Asian nations that Washington is serious about counterbalancing China. As Obama himself reiterated during his September trip to the ASEAN summit in Laos, “…as a Pacific nation, we’re here to stay. In good times and bad, you can count on the United States of America.”

All that work could however unravel if rising nationalism, at home and in the Asia Pacific, is left unchecked. From Rodrigo Duterte to Kim Jong-un, from Donald Trump to Bernie Sanders, shortsighted populism ungrounded in reality could scuttle the pivot to Asia – and all for the sake of cheap political points.