Big risks, opportunities for Obama
It will not be enough, however, for Obama to simply tout his “pivot” or “rebalance” to Asia in his speeches. His counterparts in the region are looking for concrete evidence that the rhetoric is backed by resources and political will. Poll numbers at home also show plummeting confidence in his foreign policy prowess, with only 40 percent of Americans approving of his performance abroad - the lowest number to date. To prove that the American rebalance will be sustained, the president will have to do three things.
First, he will need to demonstrate that the centerpiece of his economic engagement with Asia, the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), can be completed. Right now, talks are stalled, particularly with Japan. U.S. negotiators complain that Tokyo is stiffening its position on opening the rice, beef, pork, dairy and sugar sectors. The White House strategy is to get Japan to cave and then use those concessions to entice a skeptical Democratic caucus to give some votes for the TPP after midterm elections in the United States in November.
That may be a good political strategy for the White House, but the problem is that no major free trade agreement has been completed in recent memory before the president secures trade negotiating authority from Congress. Knowing this, the Japanese political leaders around Abe are digging in their heels. Nobody expects the TPP to be finished before the president goes to Asia - or even this year - but if the president does not make a more robust case for the trade agreement at home before his trip, the ongoing impasse in negotiations will be difficult to hide.
The Korea stop will also be tricky in this regard. The U.S. business community is growing frustrated with the lack of implementation of the Korus (Korea-U.S.) Free Trade Agreement. Late last year, Seoul stated its interest in participating in the TPP. If the U.S. media focuses on the problems in the Korus implementation during the president’s visit, that will both arm the opponents of free trade in Congress with ammunition to attack the TPP and make it harder for the president to make the case for Korean participation in the TPP. Without momentum on implementation and expansion of the new trans-Pacific trade architecture, the rebalance to Asia will look hollow.
Second, the president has to clarify the American vision for the future of the Asia-Pacific region. Presumably, the administration holds that the future of the region should be based on the values that we share with Korea with respect to democracy, rule of law and opposition to coercion. But Obama and his cabinet have muddied that vision by appearing to unequivocally embrace Chinese President Xi Jinping’s proposal for a “New Model of Great Power Relations.” No doubt the White House thinks of this as a process for building bilateral trust with China - which would be praiseworthy.
But Beijing presents the “New Model” as an end state for the region based on spheres of influence and a new Sino-U.S. bipolar condominium of some sort. That puts U.S. allies in a secondary position and throws into doubt the administration’s willingness to stand for stability and universal norms as Chinese power expands. It will be critical for the president to articulate a vision for the region when he arrives in Asia that is fundamentally grounded in our alliances and our values, but open to expanded cooperation and trust with China and across the region as a whole.
Third, the president will have to use his trip to shore-up the credibility of American deterrence. As I have noted in this column before, polls show that Americans are willing to fight to help defend Korea if necessary, even as they have grown wary of military involvements in the Middle East. Moreover, the U.S. military edge is enormous, with the Pentagon still spending more than almost the rest of the world combined on defense (not to mention having dozens of senior American admirals and generals with unmatched experience in complex military operations).
But in the wake of Obama’s retreat on Syria, the new defense budget cuts proposed in the Pentagon’s Quadrennial Defense Review, and now the Crimea crisis, the president heads to Asia with a credibility deficit he must make up. This is particularly true vis-a-vis North Korea, which is monitoring American willpower as Kim Jong-un decides how he can use his growing nuclear and missile capabilities to coerce and extract concessions from the South and his neighbors.
Obama has already taken an important step forward in this regard by holding a trilateral summit with President Park Geun-hye and Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in The Hague. The divisions between Korea and Japan have weakened all three countries’ positions vis-a-vis Pyongyang and have bred complacency in China with respect to the need to pressure the North. Deterrence is not just a matter of military capabilities - it also depends on the demonstrated will of nations to work together to respond to common threats. In addition, deterrence is enhanced by “jointness” - among different military services and between allies. The United States and Korea are blessed with a joint and combined command structure and Obama and Park will want to ensure that this asset remains strong as we proceed with commitments on wartime operational command transition.
Given all the crises and political problems pouring into the White House, it is not entirely surprising that the Obama administration has been sending mixed and sometimes confusing signals about the American commitment to free trade and strong alliances in Asia. In a few weeks, the president will have a unique opportunity to set the record straight.
*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