Obama’s path in AsiaBefore all the excitement over his re-election wore off, U.S. President Barack Obama set out for an Asian tour 10 days after his victory. The decision could mark Obama’s first step to attach specific meaning to the grand cause of “shifting the axis to Asia,” which has been emphasized as one of his new strategic guidelines since last year.
As America is in the process of withdrawing from Afghanistan, it could be a natural step to shift the U.S. government’s strategic focus from the Middle East and Europe to the Asia-Pacific. Moreover, it could be considered a timely decision to respond to the dramatic emergence of China as the second-largest economy in the world.
So far, the groundbreaking U.S. “pivot to Asia” could have been misunderstood simply as a military redeployment plan led by the Pentagon in a narrow sense rather than a comprehensive change of U.S. foreign policy in a broader sense. Fortunately, Obama’s attendance at the East Asia Summit and visits to Thailand and Myanmar illustrate Washington’s solid will to overcome such limitations as soon as possible.
As Obama wants to show a clear vision of a U.S. president responding to a great turning point in world history before beginning his second term, not only Americans but also the international community are putting great hopes on him. Despite his positive intentions, however, we cannot merely be optimistic about the success given the array of serious challenges and obstacles resulting from the critical shift of U.S. foreign policy to Asia.
The worldwide economic slump - sparked by the financial crisis in the U.S. four years ago and with no signs of receding - is pushing the politics and economies of most countries into the abyss. It is a very hostile global environment for Obama to launch a new foreign policy paradigm. The United States, in particular, is in an emergency situation with an alarming accumulation of fiscal and trade deficits, not to mention the sharp confrontation between the administration and the Congress over the daunting “fiscal cliff.” The top priority for the Obama administration is certainly to avoid a fiscal crisis.
In fact, the deepening political polarization in the U.S. and a possibility of administrative paralysis stemming from extreme rifts in the overall political spectrum raises a serious question about the efficiency of America’s democracy to the world.
In addition to those political and economic restrictions, another big stumbling block to Washington’s strategic pivot to Asia is the rather superficial perception of Asia by the American elite. More than 20 years have passed since the end of the cold war, but Asia - unlike Europe - is still viewed in ways that owe a lot to the forces and legacy of imperialism and the cold war. Asia is still considered a region of chaos and conflict.
As world-renowned Chinese scholar Ruan Zongze pointed out, the rapid growth of China and relative decline of Japan inspired unique spirits of nationalism in each country, and it is the duty of the U.S. and other countries to prevent conflicts between countries and regions. Asia has a special expectation about President Obama’s role in building new international and regional orders beyond the hegemony, imperialism and nationalism of the past.
The United States has a special position in modern history. It is the first modern democratic state and a superpower that maintains friendly relations with the Philippines, which it occupied during its imperialist days; with Japan, which it defeated in World War II; with Vietnam, where it fought during the cold war; and with Indonesia, which has the largest Islamic population in the world.
As Obama will lead the United States for four more years, we hope that the premise of America’s new Asian strategy is to play a leading role in opening a new era of Asia for peace and prosperity in collaboration with China’s new leader Xi Jinping. Xi, China’s new Communist Party general secretary, is already emphasizing the need for cooperation between China and the United States.
If the dialogue and partnership between the United States and China make progress along with matters concerning the economy and security, it will greatly contribute to controlling potential discord in Asia as well as global conflict variables. The leaders of the two countries should make a dramatic dismissal of the status quo and display creativity in removing obstacles to peace and prosperity in the Asia-Pacific region.
Next July 27 will mark the 60th anniversary of the Korean War Armistice Agreement and the 68th anniversary of the division of the Korean Peninsula. It is a crucial moment we must not let slip away. If Washington and Beijing properly adjust the priority of their pending tasks, we can take the first step into a new era of peace and cooperation in Asia, especially on the Korean Peninsula.
As all nations in Asia hope for peaceful coexistence, we hope that President Obama and Secretary Xi work together to open a new chapter in history with a firm will to prevent another cold war from being waged between two superpowers. One cold war was enough!
Translation by the Korea JoongAng Daily staff.
* The author is a former prime minister and adviser to the JoongAng Ilbo.
by Lee Hong-koo