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Foreign Policy

Obama and His Return to the Asia-Pacific

Dec 05 , 2012
  • Fu Mengzi

    VP, China Institutes of Contemporary Int'l Relations

Following President Obama’s recent trip to Asia, which included the first ever trip to Myanmar by a US President, Fu Mengzi argues a complete US pivot to Asia will be hindered by American’s involvement in the Middle East.    

Now that he has been re-elected, US President Barack Obama has cast his sight on Asia by choosing Myanmar, Thailand and Cambodia as the destinations of his first foreign visit after reelection while participating in the East Asia Summit in Phnom Penh. Of President Obama’s historic visits to these three Asian nations, his visit to Myanmar has been the most eye-catching. Although he stayed for merely six hours, Obama made history by becoming the first US president to land in Yangon and usher forth a new era of cooperation between the United States and Myanmar.

Throughout his Asian tour, Obama signaled that it is Asia, not any other part of the world, that will be highlighted in US global strategy, and the return-to-Asia or rebalance to the Asia-Pacific region he has engineered will be pushed ahead at an even faster pace instead of being considered a makeshift measure. Obama masterminded his return-to-Asia strategy as soon as he arrived in the Oval Office. Beginning in 2009, he made Southeast Asia his first target. Now, breakthroughs in the US-Myanmar relationship have extended this strategy to cover all of East Asia. During his second term, President Obama will surely push ahead with his return-to-Asia strategy and rebalance America’s global strategy toward the Asia-Pacific region.

First, President Obama has made his strategic targets even more comprehensive. During his first four years in the Oval Office, the United States completed its military pullout from Iraq and set the timetable for pullout from Afghanistan. As a result, many have wondered where the hundreds of thousands of troops pulled-out of the Middle East will go. The Obama administration will use these troops to cement a strategic military alliance. For example, in 2012, the United States deployed troops in Australia and joined hands with its Asian allies to stage one military exercise after another. Although its overall military spending in the coming decade may be cut by nearly $600 billion, its military presence and maneuverability in the Asia-Pacific region will not be affected. Nor has the United States hesitated to have a hand in the South China Sea territorial issues. With a strong military backdrop, the US’ return-to-Asia strategy has aggravated tensions in this region, aroused high attention from both Chinese strategists and the general public, and thrown quite a few Asian nations into turmoil over the potential risks that may come from taking sides. When trying to materialize his back-to-Asia strategy during his second term, Obama is likely to press ahead on all fronts:  political, economic, diplomatic and military. He may even list partnership with China as a priority in his agenda, while continuing efforts to tighten political and diplomatic networks with small and medium-sized countries in the Asia-Pacific region.

Second, economic issues will receive the spotlight. The financial crisis has limited the strength of the United States as a superpower. To regain its position, the United States must revitalize its economy. However, now Asia stands as the economic future of the world. According to the National Institute of Asia Studies, a US think-tank, Asia will house about half of the world population, make up 43 per cent of the world economy, and conduct 35 per cent of global trade by 2030. Needless to say, Asia will be a huge market for the United States. To achieve President Obama’s target of doubling US exports, his administration will have to secure a reliable position in Asia for the United States, or, as Secretary of State Hillary Clinton recently admitted, the United States will have to readjust its diplomatic policy, with economic issues taking a dominant role. Already, the United States is planning to bring the entire 10-member ASEAN into its Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement, and has welcomed China’s participation, a move designed to further consolidate its involvement in the Asia-Pacific region’s economy so as to share in the fast-speed growth.

Given how US initiatives to promote democracy and security in foreign lands have backfired, including the eruption of anti-American protests during the course of the Arab Spring and the incurrence of damage and death at the US consulate in Benghazi, Obama will also review these democracy promotion efforts with renewed vigor. Just as Myanmar’s peaceful revolution, which began in 2010, has already produced heralded results, President Obama’s historic visit to the country sent a message to the international community that the United States supports democratic movements free from violence and an anti-American insurgency

Generally, the return-to-Asia strategy should be looked at from three perspectives. First, it should be examined from a global perspective, instead of merely a Chinese perspective. China is an important factor, but it is not the only one. While it is one of Obama’s strategic objectives, of course, to balance or even counterbalance China’s growing influences, Obama’s return-to-Asia strategy is designed to serve the global strategic objectives of the United States. Obviously, it would be illogical to label America’s sole focus as being directed against China, since almost all major powers in the world, including the United States, the European Union, Russia and Canada have spotlighted Asia in their global strategies.

Second, US strategy should be viewed from an economic perspective, instead of merely a military perspective. As the military is not the only factor being given consideration in this strategy, it also attempts to boost the common good of both the United States and China through mutually independent and supplementary cooperation.

Third, US strategy should be viewed from the need to rebalance the distribution and deployment of military forces. The readjustment of military presence in the Atlantic and Pacific regions, as well as the reshuffling of naval, air and land forces will present several challenges for the US’ rebalancing strategy regardless of its design. In the current test of geopolitical and economic strength, both China and the United States boast their own unique advantages. While no Asian nations are willing to take sides with either China or the US, continued turmoil in the Middle East will hobble a full turn by the United States to the Asia-Pacific region.

Therefore, there is no need for Chinese strategists to worry about the US’ Asia-Pacific strategy. The region is so large, and the countries here are developing ever-closer ties with one another, that neither China or the United States has exclusive influence over any specific country. Nor does either of them hold any position of absolute dominance over the region. What is most likely is that both nations will continue to counterbalance each other’s influences throughout the course of self-promotion.

Fu Mengzi is Vice President, China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations


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