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Reality Killed Obama’s Asia Pivot

President Barack Obama’s much vaunted foreign policy initiative, the ‘Pivot to Asia,’ created a wave of discussion amongst academicians and policy makers across the globe. He cemented a renewed commitment of America towards the Asia Pacific region. Though this policy was viewed positively from a US-Asia Pacific relations perspective and negatively as an interpretation of ‘US Containment of China,’ it initiated a new mind set towards the economically booming region.

Not long after Obama began his second term, distractions materialized as the civil conflict in Syria escalated. While Obama is increasingly consumed by domestic politics and the Middle East turmoil, the departure of some of the central advocates of the ‘Asia Pivot’ including Hillary Clinton, Leon Panetta and Kurt Campbell, has raised questions about the future of the US endeavour in Asia. Major domestic and international challenges can easily explain Obama’s considerable neglect of this region during his second term. There are many aspects surrounding the possible future of this policy. Any future strategy in Asia, for any president, is subject to cooperation. Unforeseen events have a way of intruding on grand policy plans.

External Factors

US foreign policy covers all the corners of the world, making the task of the policy makers to prioritize extremely hard. The Middle East has always managed to be important to US policymakers and Obama is no different from many of his predecessors. The crisis in the Ukraine and the rise of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) highlight the challenges posed to US policy makers as they seek to change American policy priorities to deal with the rise of Asia, especially China.

In September Obama announced that the US will conduct a systematic campaign of air strikes against the ISIS forces, deploy 475 American personnel on ground to provide training, intelligence and equipment to the Iraqi and Kurdish forces.

On the other hand, in Europe the assertiveness of Russia in Ukraine has caused serious tensions in the global order, with constant pressure on America to take a stronger stand against the Russians.

Russian President Vladimir Putin’s takeover of Crimea and the separatist rebellion in eastern Ukraine has revived Western fears of an expansionist Russia. The NATO Summit in Wales set the stage for a new cold war with its support for sanctions on Russia. These developments have begun a new chapter in US foreign policy, which Obama and the world didn’t quite seem prepared for.

The travel plans of many top US diplomats have also become a gage to assess the US priorities towards the Asia Pacific region. Secretary Kerry’s repeated and frequent visits to the Middle East- in comparison to his sporadic and short visits to Asia- since he assumed office in February 2013 and have cast some doubt in the Asian community as to whether the Obama administration remains dedicated to the ‘rebalance.’ A lack of clear leadership in Washington for its Asia policy, as the result of prolonged vacancies in key positions at the start of Obama’s second term- including the posts of Assistant Secretary of State for Asia (recently filled) and Assistant Secretary of Defence for Asia- imply that the “rebalance” to the Asia Pacific may no longer be a top priority of the Obama administration.

Future of the Asia Pivot Strategy

The military aspect of US Pivot to Asia has been prominent. The attention of the ‘rebalance’ has been on the military dimension of America’s Asia-Pacific engagement; although it also has a strong economic dimension, as evidenced by the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) initiative. It will be important to come up with an overarching strategic framework for US policy in the Asia Pacific to avoid the common misperception that the pivot has but one purpose- the containment of China.

The TPP faces many challenges. There have been many contentious issues around the TPP: critics are particularly concerned about the secrecy around the agreement given that it has the capacity to change many local laws and regulations. Public criticism of the TPP has centred around arguments relating to intellectual property rights and the cost of medicines, though many have concerns about environmental issues including climate change, investment, e-commerce and labour laws as well. These concerns have put the discussions on the TPP in limbo, lacking any dynamism in the deliberations between the countries involved. America has taken little initiative about the TPP in Obama’s second term due to the foreign policy concerns in Europe and the Middle East.

In May, Obama visited Japan, South Korea, Malaysia and the Philippines. Supporters of the Pivot strategy, hoped for some milestone decisions to be made with the region. Ultimately, the trip ended up being a bilateral affair between US and the respective nations. During his trip, Obama failed to articulate his vision for ‘US Rebalance’ to Asia Pacific. Because it was a multi-destination trip that included stops in both Northeast and Southeast Asia, it would have been a perfect opportunity for Obama, as the diplomat-in-chief, to rearticulate his vision to implement the rebalance to the Asia Pacific.

The recent APEC Summit in Beijing saw a string of awkward moments between Obama, Xi Jinping and Putin, but the highlight of the summit was the clear indication about how US-China relations would eventually shape the present century. Apart from the commitment shown by both countries towards the climate deal and pledging to warn each other’s militaries about exercises that could possibly avoid any kind of clash in the South and East China Sea, both leaders seemed to struggle on the same issues which their predecessors had struggled with. Whether it was about the Hong Kong demonstrations, visa issues or the freedom of the media, the Chinese were clear and stern about their stand on these matters, indicative of a confident and assertive China. America’s effort in dealing with the second biggest economy in the world has been the focal point of the Obama administration, clearly proving the inception of the ‘Pivot Strategy.’ Both leaders met amicably with plenty of photo ops and long walks, as the world watched closely. How two of the most competitive countries in the world intend to remodel the world order in the coming years remains to be seen.

Some of the challenges that lie ahead for President Obama to reingage in the Asia-Pacific region are to ensure that sequestration does not damage US readiness and capabilities in the region, to strive for the completion of the negotiations on the TPP, to show support towards China’s continued economic transformation, to get America’s key Asian allies more closely alligned with its interests, and to actively pursue the de-escalation of territorial disputes in the East and South China Seas.