Will Obama’s “Pivot to Asia” end with his presidency?

Will Obama’s “Pivot to Asia” end with his presidency?

Obama’s pivot should have represented a shift in US foreign policy. However, with the end of his presidency fast approaching and the mitigated results of the policy, the future of the pivot has been thrown into question.

Obama’s inauguration eight years ago saw him lay out his plan for a global shift of US priorities away from Europe and the endless quagmire that the Middle East had become in favour of a renewed focus on the Asia Pacific. The “pivot to Asia” sought to reassert US preeminence (both economically and militarily) in a region where China was slowly angling to become the dominant player. However, with the end of the Obama administration in sight, the famed pivot has brought mixed results. The ongoing crises in the Middle East have forced Washington to allocate significant resources to the region, China continues to remain assertive over its South China Sea claims and the TPP still hasn’t been ratified by its signatories. The question remains – what will become of the pivot come 2017?

Regional rivalries hinder US pivot

While the strategy has faced opposition on all fronts, the continuing divisions between states in the Asia Pacific region have made it particularly difficult for the US to successfully reorient its role in the region. To begin with, historical tensions between regional actors continue to simmer and have often been reignited by relatively small-scale incidents. These historical divisions continue to carry huge influence from business dealings to diplomatic overtures. For example the 2014 riots in Vietnam, which left 21 dead, were sparked by China moving an oil-rig into disputed waters in the South China Sea – a legacy from the 1988 war between Vietnam and China which led to the former’s defeat in the Spratly Islands.

Even between countries that have relatively good diplomatic relations in Asia, historical tensions continue to erupt and impede US positioning. For example, the issue of comfort women is still a particularly sensitive one between South Korea and Japan, despite the concessions and $8.3 million payment made by Tokyo earlier last year. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe of Japan went so far as to offer an apology, but when diplomatic relations between the two countries flounder, the issue is consistently brought up by extreme nationalistic elements in South Korea. Worse, North Korea is reportedly seeking to drive a wedge between South Korea and Japan by sponsoring Chong Dae Hyup, a prominent South Korean organization seeking the annulment of the deal.

Next, overlapping territorial claims have also caused a headache for the US pivot. While China’s disputed claims in the South China Sea are well known, it is often forgotten that smaller states in the region also have border conflicts. Malaysia and the Philippines for example, have historically been at odds with one another over ownership of the Malaysian state of Sabah. In 2013, the state, which sits on the eastern tip of Borneo, saw a battle erupt between 200 Filipinos, who sought to assert the Philippines’ claim to the state, and Malaysian security forces. As nationalist fever continues to grow around the region, both governments have slowly increased their stake in the dispute. In Malaysia, the government has attempted to use the issue to detract attention from the 1MDB scandal, while the Philippines’ populist president Rodrigo Duterte has been keen to stoke the claim as part of his firebrand approach to politics.

These divisions have essentially blocked the creation of a sturdy coalition against China’s claims in the region. The last ASEAN summit in July 2016, where Cambodia blocked a statement on the situation in the South China Sea, exemplified Beijing’s slick foreign policy in the region, which combines economic incentives with covert threats.  Xi Jinping’s “One Belt One Road” framework, supplemented by other initiatives such as the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, have also given countries in the region a clear message that China has both the will and capacity to heavily invest in its neighbours. In a region needing an estimated $8 trillion invested in infrastructure, that message has been received loud and clear.

China’s opposition to a full US pivot

Over the past several years, Beijing has successfully used these tools to its advantage in a bid to prevent US dominance in a region it essentially considers its own backyard. While the US has scaled down cooperation in countries over concerns of human rights and governance, Beijing has been quick to reach out and make up for the shortfall of US funds. As a result, regional countries that were often seen as the strongest supporters of US foreign policy including Thailand, Malaysia, Cambodia and now the Philippines, are slowly shifting their allegiances to Beijing.

For example, Thailand, once described as a “beacon of democracy in South East Asia”, was strapped for cash when the US slashed funding over the May 2014 coup d’état. Beijing quickly reached out and courted the generals with propositions of Chinese investment in sectors ranging from real estate to transport, bringing both countries closer diplomatically. This culminated last week with Thailand barring Joshua Wong, the Hong Kong student and pro-democracy leader, from entering the country, likely following a request from Beijing. As a result, in a region that once used to hedge against both China and the US, the scale is slowly tipping against Washington as Beijing becomes the “easier” government to work with.

As much as Washington has achieved in the region, both presidential contenders have thrown the future of the pivot into question: Trump claims that he will force Japan and other Asian nations to pay for its alliance while Clinton has moved against the TPP. Both candidates have displayed reluctance for the US to increase their involvement in the region – a shift which is likely to bring further instability to the Asia Pacific. Despite the difficulties facing the pivot, it has provided the US with the resources to better engage with regional actors and chart a path for future cooperation. Far from containing China, the pivot is a necessary policy at a time when global instability is rocking business confidence. Abandoning it would be reckless.

Categories: Asia Pacific, Politics

About Author

Nicolas Jenny

Nicolas Jenny specialises in European and Asian political risk analysis. He has lived extensively throughout the region and speaks English, French and Mandarin. He holds a double master's from Sciences Po Paris and Fudan University and a BSc in politics from the University of Bristol.