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Obama's second term: The case for pivoting to Asia
After more than a decade spending American blood and treasure in the Mideast and South Asia, the U.S. is upping its bet on the Pacific
 
President Obama with Thailand Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra: The president's choice of Southeast Asia as his first post-election trip was no accident.
President Obama with Thailand Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra: The president's choice of Southeast Asia as his first post-election trip was no accident.
Jack Kurtz/Getty Images

"Sorry, Europe," says the AP's Eric Talmadge. "Fueled by China's amazing growth and the promise of its huge and expanding consumer market, the Asia-Pacific region is now, as experts like to say, the global economy's center of gravity." That's why, a year ago, President Obama and other top U.S. officials announced a U.S. "pivot" or "rebalancing" of American foreign policy toward the Asia-Pacific region. And by making his first post-election presidential trip to Southeast Asia, including two nations no U.S. president has visited before — Myanmar (Burma) and Cambodia — Obama is doubling down on this eastward shift. He's also providing "a timely opportunity to assess the implications of this policy going into the president's second term," say Michele A. Flournoy and Ziad Haider at Foreign Policy.

The issue: Shifting U.S. foreign policy toward Asia
Obama has called himself "America's first Pacific president," both because of his childhood in Hawaii and Indonesia and because of his interest in bolstering America's influence in Asia, says Scott Neuman at NPR. In his first term, however, his "goal of making a 'pivot' to the region — both militarily and diplomatically — has been hamstrung by the need to wind down wars in Iraq and Afghanistan." Now, heading into his second four years without those costly wars, Obama is freer to aggressively pursue his Asia rebalancing. 

"Much of the 'pivot' to the Asia-Pacific region is a continuation and expansion of policies already undertaken by previous administrations," as well as earlier Obama initiatives, says the Congressional Research Office. George W. Bush, for example, started to strengthen economic ties to Asian allies in his second term, negotiating a free trade deal with South Korea and involving the U.S. in negotiations for a regional Trans-Pacific Strategic Economic Partnership (TPP) free trade pact. Obama expanded economic ties by joining the East Asia Summit multilateral organization and added a military component by putting a contingent of Marines in Australia, sending a naval deployment to Singapore, upping military cooperation with nations including the Philippines and Myanmar, and starting to redeploy America's naval fleet toward the Asia-Pacific theater. 

In the past few months, the Obama administration has started focusing more on the economic aspect and less on the military part, even dropping the word "pivot," says Brahma Chellaney in Lebanon's The Daily Star. But "whatever one calls it, the new policy approach is all about China." It is not, however, "an aggressive effort to contain China," as some people — including many in China's government — have mischaracterized it, say Flournoy and Haider at Foreign Policy. The Asia pivot "is driven first and foremost by the reality of U.S. economic interdependence with the region as a whole."

Why focusing on Asia is a good idea
The Asia-Pacific region "is becoming more significant by the month," says Tom Plate in The Japan Times. So "this pivotal moment arrives, shall we say, not a moment too soon." Asia, of course, can't be the only area the U.S. focuses on — as Israel and Gaza reminded us, Middle East violence won't just disappear, say Flournoy and Haider. But America is at "a strategic inflection point," and Obama is right to shift our "attention and resources to the region that will drive economic prosperity and security more than any other in the 21st century." Obama's pivot is "vital to long-term U.S. interests," and it will have a lasting impact "not only in his second term but also for administrations to come."

So why send in the Navy? For trade to flourish there needs to be stability, and the U.S. is the only plausible counterweight to China's growing military aggression. But U.S. engagement, especially with less-than-democratic countries like Cambodia and Laos, is important, too, John Ciorciari at the University of Michigan tells NPR. "If the U.S. wants to compete with China effectively for ideological and strategic influence in Southeast Asia, it has to do what the U.S. does best, which is to provide a model that the populations and the progressive elements in those countries can latch onto." If the U.S. can shape China's neighbors, "as those countries develop, economically and politically, their inclination will be to promote the interests and also the values that they share with the U.S."

Why the pivot may not work
Obama "may have bitten off more than he can chew over the next four years," says Michael Auslin in The Wall Street Journal. His biggest challenge will be to forge a working relationship with China's new leader, Xi Jinping, while assuring China's wary neighbors that the U.S. is serious about using its shrinking military resources to make its presence felt in the region. So far, when it comes to defending Japan and the Philippines from China's island land-grabs, Obama has remained tellingly neutral. Meanwhile, the rest of the world's hot spots will refuse to stay dormant, likely rendering Obama's "laudable Asia vision unfulfilled."

"The Obama administration deserves credit for the successes produced so far by its 'pivot to Asia,'" says Joshua Kurlantzick at The New Republic. But at the same time, "the enthusiasm in Washington for the 'pivot' has gone much too far." Obama is probably moving too fast to extend military ties to eager-but-"unsavory governments" in Myanmar, Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, Malaysia, and Thailand. "There is little reason to believe that these militaries will cease their abuses of human rights, or that they would support broader U.S. interests over what's required to keep themselves firmly entrenched in power." So as well-intentioned as the pivot is, there is a glaring "moral and strategic blind spot" in the strategy that Obama hasn't adequately addressed.

Read more analysis of Obama's second term:
-The case for an Arab-Israeli peace push
-The case for education reform
-The case for entitlement reform
-The case for immigration reform
-The case for intervening in Syria
-The case for new climate change laws
-The case for preventing Iranian nukes

Sources: AP, Congressional Research Service [PDF], Daily Star, Foreign Policy (2), Japan Times, New Republic, NPR, Wall Street Journal, Washington Post

 

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