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Foreign Policy

Obama: China, India & the State of the Pivot

Jan 28 , 2015

U.S. President Barack Obama’s whirlwind three-day state visit to India – cut short by his traveling on to Saudi Arabia after the death of that nation’s monarch, King Abdullah – in many ways could have helped better underscore a message that sadly went missing from the U.S. leader’s State of the Union address just days before: the critical importance of strengthened U.S.-Asia business, educational, and cultural engagement across the region. Such engagement can be a positive force for Asia and the United States, and need not be seen, as some have portrayed it, as simply a competitive reaction to China’s own engagement in the region.

The United States should not turn away from its heritage and important role as a Pacific power. This idea may take some explaining to a U.S. public tired of involvement in lands far from its borders. Indeed, any average American may well have wondered why the U.S. president was in India so soon after he delivered his penultimate State of the Union address to the American people. And as for China, the references made were more often negative than positive – perhaps not the best way to win cooperation on critical issues facing both nations.

Overall, Obama’s annual address to the U.S. Congress said little to nothing about Asia, particularly Southeast or South Asia, excluding Afghanistan. Prior to embarking for India, Obama had a chance to provide a “teaching moment.” As I have argued in Fortune Magazine and elsewhere, the U.S. president in his State of the Union address missed the opportunity to put his landmark trip to India in the context of a vital and enduring American commitment to Asia. With U.S. relations with India under Prime Minister Narendra Modi now back on track, Obama became the first U.S. president to visit India twice during his term in office – something few Americans are likely to know.

All, however, is far from lost. The opportunity remains for the U.S. president, working with a now Republican Party-controlled U.S. Congress, to add substance to rhetoric. Together, they can further what could still be a hallmark of the now waning Obama Administration, namely underscoring the value of strengthened trade and stronger ties with all of Asia as part of a reinvigorated “pivot” or “rebalance” of U.S. policy toward the region.

Full of praise for what the president saw as his own domestic victories, the 70-minute State of the Union address said little of America’s relationship with the world’s most dynamic region, and why Asia matters to all of the United States – Wall Street to Main Street. From initial words on disengagement – “for the first time since 9/11, our combat mission in Afghanistan is over” (though some 15,000 U.S. troops remain) – to the less than diplomatic – “as we speak, China wants to write the rules for the world’s fastest-growing region [and] put our workers and businesses at a disadvantage” – references to Asia in what is typically the most watched presidential speech of the year were limited and brief.

What of a comprehensive trade agreement now being negotiated – the Trans-Pacific Partnership – by the United States and 11 other Asia-Pacific nations? Little was said despite the benefits that can be gained should the ambitious deal be realized. The president did call for “both parties [of Congress] to give [him] trade promotion authority to protect American workers, with strong new trade deals from Asia to Europe that aren’t just free, but fair.” But then, he quickly moved on, doing little to build a case, to explain the jargon or to convince skeptics of his commitment to the hard work necessary to move such trade agreements forward.

And what of rising tensions in the South China Sea, as a wary Asia adjusts to a resurgent China, still the world’s second largest economy despite slowing growth rates? The U.S. president was equally brief.

“In the Asia Pacific, we are modernizing alliances while making sure that other nations play by the rules — in how they trade, how they resolve maritime disputes, and how they participate in meeting common international challenges like nonproliferation and disaster relief,” Obama said before pivoting to the topic of climate change. There though, to his credit, he highlighted some steps forward in efforts to involve and engage China in reducing its rate of increase, if not yet actual, emissions harmful to the environment.

What else might he have said?  According to the latest data from the East-West Center, a nonpartisan Hawaii-based think tank, Obama could well have underscored to Americans that:

  • 28% of U.S. goods and 27% of U.S. services exports go to Asia;
  • 32% of U.S. jobs from exports depend on exports to Asia;
  • 64% of international students in the United States are from Asia – contributing $14 billion to the U.S. economy;
  • 8.5 million visitors from Asia contribute $41 billion to the US economy; and
  • 39 states send at least a quarter of their exports to Asia.

To be clear, America’s security and prosperity are closely and increasingly linked to Asia and the Pacific. And, the tale of the 21st century will be defined in part by how all Asia-Pacific powers, including the United States and China, and an increasingly dynamic Southeast Asian region, can both cooperate and compete. The region is home not just to China, but also to two of the world’s largest democracies, India and Indonesia, as well as several nations, including Japan, the Philippines and South Korea, that the United States is bound by treaty to defend. Critically, Asia also provides growing opportunities for U.S. trade, investment and entrepreneurship.

That’s a point that U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry underscored at a speech at the East West Center in Honolulu in August 2014. “In the 21st century, a nation’s interests and the well-being of its people are advanced not just by troops or diplomats, but they’re advanced by entrepreneurs, by chief executives of companies, by the businesses that are good corporate citizens, by the workers that they employ, by the students that they train, and the shared prosperity that they create.”

Obama chose not to deliver this message amidst all he had to say from Washington on the state of the U.S. union, focusing on his domestic U.S. audience. Yet, Asia and the world looked on and took note. Whether delivered amidst a state visit to India or in the U.S. Capitol building, the critical point remains: America matters to all of Asia, but Asia — including China — also matters very much to America.

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