Feature

Obama enters the Asian fray

The president promoted his “Pacific pivot” strategy on a four-day trip to a region increasingly unsettled by China’s growing influence.

President Obama promoted his “Pacific pivot” strategy this week on a four-day trip to a region increasingly unsettled by China’s growing influence. Obama’s visit was the first by a U.S. president to Cambodia, which hosted a summit of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, and to Myanmar, where he met with Nobel Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi and praised the country’s “flickers of progress” toward democracy. In a delicate statement at the ASEAN summit, Obama urged all countries in the region to resolve their deepening territorial disputes over uninhabited islands that are claimed by China and by others, including American allies Japan and the Philippines. But the summit ended in acrimony as Cambodia, a Chinese ally, sought to forestall efforts to set up an international system for resolving those disputes. 

It’s no surprise the summit turned testy, said Melinda Liu in TheDailyBeast.com. U.S. allies in the region are nervous. “The backdrop for these simmering frictions is China’s inexorable rise, America’s scramble to remain a major player in the Pacific, and the shifting power balance between these two.” Obama wouldn’t say it openly, but his administration’s diplomatic outreach and new military deployments are all about encircling China.

He’s moving too fast, said Joshua Kurlantzick in The New Republic. Repressive Myanmar is nowhere near deserving of U.S. recognition, yet Obama rushed to embrace it. “Thailand and Laos are little better.” The militaries of all three countries have been accused of summary executions and crackdowns on ethnic minorities, yet all three benefit from Pentagon ties as buffers against Chinese influence. We should be wary of compromising our support for fledgling democratic movements to back these regimes, which may bring no “strategic benefits to the U.S.” 

Obama is proving a master of “cynical realpolitik,” said Michael Hirsh in NationalJournal.com. The president he “most resembles right now on foreign policy” is Richard Nixon—only instead of opening China to defy the Soviets, “he’s opening Myanmar to outmaneuver the Chinese.” It is definitely not a pretty tactic, but it may work. We can at least hope that “the short-term sacrifice of human rights for a longer-term triumph of American influence in the region” eventually results in more democracy as well.

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