Depending on whom you ask, Barack Obama’s foreign policy has been alternately an unmitigated disaster or a shrewd recalibration of American power and priorities. Conservatives point to the “global catastrophes unfolding around us”—from the growth of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in early 2014—as the consequences of American retreat under the Obama presidency. Meanwhile, allies of President Obama maintain that under his leadership, America has replaced the reckless war-making of the Bush era with a “balanced and sustainable” foreign policy that focuses intently upon America’s principal interests. As Derek Chollet, a former advisor to the Obama administration, writes in his book The Long Game, “doing more of everything,” as the president’s critics seem to demand, “is not a strategy.”1
But to both defenders and detractors of President Obama’s global strategy, America’s pivot toward the Asia-Pacific region should stand as one of the brightest points of his foreign policy legacy. It is a bold move to protect American interests in the short term, but it also represents the first step in a crucial long-term strategy to balance a rising China, curb the North Korean nuclear threat, and strengthen military and economic alliances in what is rapidly becoming the world’s most important region.
The U.S. has engaged with the great powers of North Asia on a consistent basis for decades. American forces helped rebuild Japan in the aftermath of World War II, and in 1960, the U.S. and Japan signed the Treaty of Mutual Cooperation and Security, which enables America to maintain a military presence on the Japanese islands and project power into the Pacific. In the early years of the Cold War, the U.S. battled communist insurgencies in Korea and Vietnam, which China helped sustain with weapons, cash, and even soldiers. Seeking to pressure a rising Soviet Union, President Richard Nixon went to China in 1972, laying the foundation for the full normalization of U.S.-China relations that would come under the Carter administration only a few years later. Today, Japan and China are the second- and third-largest economies in the world behind the United States and are among our most important trade partners. Together, these Asian powers exchanged nearly $1 trillion worth of goods and services with the U.S. in 2015 alone.2
Beginning with the collapse of the Soviet Union in the late eighties, however, a flood of global transformations have roiled the global balance of power. President George H.W. Bush oversaw an America at its peak—alone atop the international order as Soviet power dispersed between a broken Russia and its liberated satellite states. But within years, China emerged as a challenger to America’s military and economic hegemony. As the U.S. has pared back its military budget in the aftermath of two expensive Middle Eastern wars, China has pressed forward with years of double-digit percentage hikes in the size of its officially-reported military budget. Though lacking the technological advancements of its American counterpart, China’s military has transformed from an “unsophisticated force focused on land defense against the Soviet Union” into a “more modern force focused on countering intervention by the United States in the East Asia region.”3 Meanwhile, undergirded by a massive population of nearly 1.4 billion and the major market reforms of the late ’70s and ‘80s, China’s economy has grown at a breakneck pace. At the peak of the global recession in 2009, the U.S. economy shrunk nearly 3 percent—but China’s grew by over 9 percent.4 Even in the face of severe economic headwinds, China grinds on, posting extraordinary growth figures quarter after quarter.
With its newfound military might, China has engaged in provocative expansionism in the East and South China Seas. In violation of the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea, it has laid claim to a massive swath of maritime territory that encroaches upon those of six other Pacific nations, including Japan, Taiwan, and the Philippines.5 Throughout these disputed areas, it has expanded its military presence, even constructing an artificial island, complete with airstrips and missile batteries, in one of the most hotly-contested regions.The country has also harnessed its considerable economic power in the hopes of rendering the United States a secondary player in regional trade. China has advanced several multilateral agreements in Asia as alternatives to the U.S.-dominated World Bank and International Monetary Fund (IMF)—including the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB), which several key U.S. allies joined over strident objections from Washington. Additionally, China is pursuing bilateral (two-party) trade agreements with individual Asian nations, aiming to degrade America’s economic influence in the region one nation at a time.
Even if China is unlikely to become a global competitor to the U.S., it could supplant American power and influence in Asia. The Chinese military lacks the global reach of America’s—but its regional capabilities are fearsome.
China continues to face serious structural problems at home that will hamper any effort to become a global leader. In his 2015 book Is the American Century Over?, Harvard professor and distinguished political scientist Joseph Nye explains that while America is home to a stable democracy, the legitimacy of China’s authoritarian government rests upon sustained economic growth and ethnic nationalism—hardly recipes for long-term stability and global hegemony. China’s dependency upon censorship and propaganda also have reduced the country’s “soft power”—its ability to influence the world through culture, political values, and foreign policy—by diminishing its credibility on the international stage. “China makes the mistake of thinking that government is the main instrument of soft power,” Nye writes. “In today’s world, information is not scarce but attention is, and attention depends on credibility. Government propaganda is rarely credible … [and] there is little international audience for brittle propaganda.”6
But even if China is unlikely to become a global competitor to the U.S., it is vying to supplant American power and influence in Asia. The Chinese military lacks the global reach of America’s, but its regional capabilities are fearsome. If other Asian nations are forced to face China alone, they will have to bend to its will, lest they create economic tension or spark an armed conflict with the region’s resident bully. But by pivoting to Asia, the United States can ensure the safety and autonomy of China’s smaller neighbors by discouraging Chinese aggression, all while reaping the economic benefits of better relations with the countries of Asia.
In implementing his pivot, President Obama has not been entirely successful. His fear of escalation and accommodationist rhetoric unsettled allies and emboldened China to begin militarizing islands in the South China Sea during his first term. His incoherent policy in the Middle East, capped by his ultimately meaningless “red line” in Syria, was less-than-reassuring to Asian nations counting on protection from China’s aggressive tactics. But despite initially mismanaging developments in the South China Sea, President Obama has learned quickly. In the twilight years of his administration, he has ratcheted up U.S. naval deployments to the region, ordering a carrier strike group there in March, and has reasserted America’s willingness to protect its allies and freedom of the seas. And by establishing the U.S.-Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) summit in 2013 and a American-Southeast Asian leaders’ summit in 2009, President Obama “establish[ed] an enduring framework for engagement with Southeast Asia” that will bolster U.S. strategic ties to the region even as China rises.7
President-elect Donald Trump should sustain and strengthen this policy of engagement with Asia. The worst thing that the U.S. could do now would be to back down and, as President Obama naively pledged in 2009, to respect China’s “core interests” in the region.8 As Nye writes, “such a response to China’s rise would destroy American credibility and lead regional states into bandwagoning rather than balancing China. Such a policy could indeed represent the beginning of the end of the American century.”9
As China grows both as a threat and as a partner to the United States, it is more important than ever that we lean into Asia to secure our interests there, protect our allies, and gain critical leverage with China to deal with the North Korean nuclear threat. And for Mr. Trump, who hopes to confront China over trade imbalances and vanishing American jobs, President Obama’s pivot to Asia provides a valuable starting point for these important and contentious conversations.
- Chollet, Derek, The Long Game (New York: PublicAffairs, 2016), xviii. ↩
- Office of the U.S. Trade Representative, “Japan,” https://ustr.gov/countries-regions/japan-korea-apec/japan; Office of the U.S. Trade Representative, “The People’s Republic of China,” https://ustr.gov/countries-regions/china-mongolia-taiwan/peoples-republic-china. ↩
- Nye, Joseph S., Is the American Century Over? (Malden, MA: Polity Press, 2015), 56-57. ↩
- The World Bank, “GDP growth (annual %) for U.S., China,” retrieved December 5, 2016, http://data.worldbank.org/indicator/NY.GDP.MKTP.KD.ZG?end=2015&locations=CN-US&start=1988&view=chart. ↩
- Council on Foreign Relations, “China’s Maritime Disputes,” retrieved December 5, 2016, http://www.cfr.org/asia-and-pacific/chinas-maritime-disputes/p31345#!/?cid=otr-marketing_use-china_sea_InfoGuide. ↩
- Nye, Is the American Century Over?, 56-61. ↩
- Green, Mike, “The Legacy of Obama’s Pivot to Asia,” Foreign Policy, September 3, 2016. ↩
- Green, “The Legacy of Obama’s ‘Pivot’,” 2016. ↩
- Nye, Is the American Century Over?, 65-66. ↩