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Pivot Problems Plague the President

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Yesterday marked the start of President Obama’s eight-day tour through Asia, where he will visit Japan, South Korea, Malaysia and the Philippines to build confidence in America’s Pivot towards the region. While the trip aims to “renew diplomatic and economic attention on Asia,” numerous distractions – including China’s military aggressions, the crisis in Ukraine, stalled trans-Pacific trade negotiations and growing American isolationism – may prevent Obama from successfully reassuring allies of anything.

The idea for a “Pivot towards Asia” began in 2011, born of the Obama administration’s desire to move foreign policy focus away from wars in the Middle East and onto a region with strong, stable growth. Hilary Clinton, then Secretary of State, authored a feature for Foreign Policy Magazine in October of that year titled “America’s Pacific Century,” claiming “the future of politics will be decided in Asia, not Afghanistan or Iraq, and the United States will be right at the center of the action.” Since then, however, the administration’s goal of “lock(ing) in a substantially increased investment” in Asia failed to materialize, and the pivot stayed put. Caught up in negotiations with the Middle East and caught off guard by crisis in Syria and Ukraine, American foreign policy seemed to de-prioritize eastern nations once deemed “critical to America’s future.”

While gaining the confidence of our Asian allies and trading partners is at the forefront of Obama’s mission, more complicated geopolitical issues are not far behind. Each of the four nations President Obama will visit this week is currently embroiled in territorial disputes with China — the omission of China from the president’s itinerary may signify disapproval of Chinese aggression in the region. Despite this snub, the world’s second largest economy can’t feasibly be ignored, and the U.S. must strike a balance between “containing China, hedging against China, (and) … participating in and benefiting from the most dynamic area of the world.”

China’s recent behavior proved unsettling to many Pacific nations, but President Xi Jinping’s future plans must be accounted for as well. While National Security Advisor Susan Rice “dismissed the notion that China could be emboldened by Russia's annexation of Crimea,” it’s easy to compare current events in eastern Europe with recent conflicts in the East China Sea. The location of an infamous island dispute between Japan and China, as well as the site of overlapping boundaries between Japan, South Korea, China and Taiwan, these waters have witnessed multiple confrontations amongst Asian nations in the past several years. Rooted in the aggressive placement of Chinese military personnel and ships in contested areas, the Asian giant’s unprovoked assertions of strength very much resemble those of Russia in its sudden annexation of Crimea. Despite a “personal plea” from Vice President Joe Biden to Beijing in late 2013, China’s aggressions have shown no signs of slowing down.

While situational parallels between Eastern Europe and East Asia abound, a more urgent concern is that the conflict in Ukraine will draw attention away from Obama’s message of commitment to Asia while he tours the Pacific this week. The White House is “skeptical” that Russia will make good on its recent agreement to de-escalate tensions, which could mean more sanctions are in order — siphoning US energies and foreign policy resources away from the Pivot when they are needed the most.

An additional issue jeopardizing the effectiveness of Obama’s trip — and the pivot itself — is the American public’s waning support for international involvement. According to a recent poll from the Pew Research Center, about half of Americans feel that the U.S. should “mind its own business internationally,” and 53% feel that the U.S. is less important and powerful than it was ten years ago. This trend towards isolationism, paired with a shrinking U.S. defense budget, doesn’t display the dedication and commitment to Asian nations that Obama needs to sound convincing.

To be sure, unrealistic military spending projections and incomplete support at home have created a complicated political backdrop for Obama’s Asian tour. An additional issue helping obfuscate the president’s mission is the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), a free trade deal between the U.S. and 11 countries within the Asia-Pacific region. It’s estimated that TPP could boost U.S. exports over $120 billion a year, but after years of negotiations, an agreement has not yet been reached. And with discussions “deadlocked over scores of issues and growing U.S. congressional and public opposition,” Obama does not have the momentum — let alone the constitutional authority — he needs to close the deal while on this trip.

Faced with conflicting interests at home, abroad, and within his own party as the Asian tour begins, Obama’s only choice is to be believable yet vague, strong yet noncommittal. Luckily, that may be enough. According to deputy national security advisor Benjamin Rhodes, “Showing up matters a lot in Asia.” And, although the U.S. doesn’t have resounding support for the pivot at this point in time, “We have the benefit of knowing what success will look like,” Rhodes said. “And if we achieve it, people will think it was worth it.”

While the ultimate success of the Asia pivot remains to be seen, “The United States has been, and always will be, a Pacific nation,” President Obama stated during his last trip to Asia in 2011. “We are here to stay.”

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