Obama’s second term Asia strategy

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Obama’s second term Asia strategy

U.S. National Security Adviser Susan Rice gave a comprehensive speech on U.S. foreign policy toward the Asia Pacific region at Georgetown University on Nov. 20. This was an important speech for two reasons. First, doubts have grown about President Barack Obama’s commitment to continue his “rebalance” or “pivot” to Asia in the second term after the shut-down of the U.S. government forced him to cancel his trip to the APEC and East Asia Summits in October. This speech was the first major effort to fill that vacuum by demonstrating a continued commitment to the region, which Rice did in part by announcing the president would travel to Asia in April next year.

The speech was also important because there has been no strong spokesman for Asia policy in the second term. The president’s own major speech on foreign policy at the UN in September focused entirely on the Middle East and none of his new senior cabinet appointments on the diplomatic/security side come with a strong background or agenda on Asia the way Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and her Deputy Jim Steinberg did in the first term.

Indeed, one problem with the Obama administration’s Asia policy has been that it has been highly personality-dependent and appears - at least to many in the region - to shift in emphasis every year or two, with the latest iteration being a tilt toward Beijing. Rice did a generally good job correcting those impressions by conveying continuity of principles and strategy and offering the first real vision for what the administration ultimately seeks to achieve in the Asia Pacific.

Several aspects of that vision stood out.

First, Korean readers should take note of the fact that the speech began by emphasizing the importance of alliances. This is a repeated theme for all administrations, but one the current administration cannot stress enough given the challenges we and our allies must face together from North Korea and uncertainty about China’s future role.

The description of the future U.S. relationship with China was also nuanced and comprehensive, though there was one assertion that has already sowed some doubt in Japan and elsewhere in the region. Rice stated that the United States looked “to operationalize a new model of major power relations” with China, appearing to embrace a formula introduced by President Xi Jinping.

The problem is that Beijing’s preferred “new model of major power relations” involves the United States accommodating Chinese concerns about Taiwan arms sales, regional maritime disputes and U.S. military operations. That is certainly not the set of policies Rice meant to imply when she made her speech, but accepting the Chinese language risks reinforcing Beijing’s spin that the United States is tilting toward China in the second term.

That said, the specifics on America’s China policy were on target. Rice noted the importance of “managing inevitable competition,” spotlighted the problem of China’s cyber-espionage and sent reassuring signals that China, too, could benefit from the TPP. Rice also spent considerable time emphasizing that in working with China the administration will “champion respect for the rule of law, human rights, religious freedom and democratic principles.”

Good China policy requires attention on all these fronts, and after the president’s apparent downgrading of democracy and human rights as a U.S. priority in his UN speech on the Middle East, it is noteworthy that Rice has brought them back to the center of U.S. Asia policy, at least. Indeed, the overall emphasis on universal rights and freedoms in the speech was most welcome and resonated with the kind of speech about Asia George W. Bush or Bill Clinton would have given.

The formulation on North Korea was also striking, though Korean observers might think it was too brief. Rice framed the overall approach by saying that “one of our most pressing security goals is to roll back the threat posed by North Korea’s nuclear and other WMD programs.” Negotiations were listed after roll-back, and acceptable only if “authentic and credible.”

This emphasis on threat reduction is a much more pragmatic approach than the formulation one usually hears about two binary paths - one leading to complete denuclearization and the other to North Korea’s further isolation. Talks may or (more likely) may not work - but in the meantime all instruments of national power must be used to minimize the actual threat of the North Korean programs. Rice seemed to signal that key point.

Finally, on the economy Rice did as good a job as she could emphasizing that the “foremost economic goal in the region is concluding negotiations for the Trans-Pacific Partnership and achieving congressional approval.” Trade was not a major component of the administration’s Asia policy in the first term, but in the second term there is more momentum, especially on the TPP.

The problem is that U.S. negotiating partners and the U.S. business community are beginning to doubt whether the White House has the political capacity to pass Trade Promotion Authority (TPA) legislation necessary to successfully complete the TPP negotiations.

Legally, the administration does not need TPA to complete the talks, but as a practical matter the administration runs a high risk of having the Congress reject the TPP agreement if TPA legislation is not secured before its completion - and U.S. negotiating partners know that. Rice did a good job asserting the White House commitment to securing TPA (though she never mentioned those three letters). However, if the president travels to Asia in April without having the legislative process on TPA under way, the TPP negotiations will be in real trouble, and so will the success of his trip.

One thing Rice did not explain is where the president will go in April. The general expectation is that he will travel to Japan for a state visit, followed by Malaysia and the Philippines, which he had to skip in October. It would be good for him to stop in Korea as well.

*The author is senior vice president for Asia and Japan chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and associate professor at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C.

by Michael Green
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