Pacific ‘pivot’ useless if US out of its depth
Leading a responsible nation requires delicate balancing. President Barack Obama must manage the time he spends on domestic and international politics, so he doesn’t neglect thorny national issues, or overlook international situations where the United States claims to desire to play an important role. When a nation’s foreign policy is more assertive than its domestic policy, problems can arise. Back in November 2011, Obama told the Australian parliament that “In the Asia Pacific in the 21st century, the United States of America is all in.” Clearly, he has both overstepped and not followed up. But if Obama were able to balance this so-called “pivot” to Asia with domestic concerns, Asia-Pacific nations would welcome the United States as a responsible stakeholder in the region. Unfortunately, these days, that is not the case.
In early October, Obama announced he would not be attending the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation summit, the premier gathering of Asian leaders, held Oct. 7-8 in Indonesia. This is not the first time Obama has failed to attend top gatherings of the region’s leaders. Though he dispatched the capable John Kerry to attend on his behalf, the secretary of state lacks Obama’s stature, and thus is less able to push the U.S. regional agenda.
Obama appears overwhelmed by domestic problems. He canceled his Asia trip because of the U.S. government shutdown, which arose from his desire to defend “Obamacare,” his controversial health care program. Promoting universal medical insurance has been part of his party’s platform for more than half a century; similar plans are already available in many industrialized countries. However, Obama may have failed to understand a fundamental tenet of American exceptionalism: The United States has a unique history and culture that allows its citizens great liberty — and many believe that includes the right not to buy medical insurance.
Republicans may deserve most of the blame for the government shutdown but, as president, Obama shoulders the ultimate responsibility for shaping the nation’s agenda and forging consensus so the government does not fall apart. Obama has been pushing the right agenda, but at the wrong time: Obamacare shouldn’t be prioritized until the United States is able to balance its budget and foster the growth of middle-class incomes.
Obama’s Asia policy suffers from the same excess of ambition and lack of balancing as his health care policy. Washington has expressed concern about Chinese vessels conducting economic activity in several Southeast Asian nations’ exclusive economic zones. And the White House worries about China’s “assertive” handling of territorial disputes with U.S. allies, including the Diaoyu — islands in the East China Sea that Japan claims — and Huangyan, a shoal in the South China Sea claimed by the Philippines. By meddling with the Diaoyus, Obama is taking an unbalanced stance in favor of Japan, thus stirring up tensions in East Asia.
Despite the controversies that periodically flare up between China and Japan, both countries’ willingness to shelve the long-standing dispute secured four decades of regional peace and stability, ever since the two countries normalized their relationship in 1972. However, by nationalizing the main islands in September 2012, Japan disturbed the status quo and forced China to respond. The United States could have checked its ally’s incautious and irresponsible behavior. Instead, it encouraged Tokyo: In April, U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said the Diaoyu “fall under” the Japan-U.S. Security Treaty, which requires the United States to defend Japan.
In the South China Sea, if the United States wished to act responsibly it would be building regional consensus based on international law. Ensuring that all Asian nations honor the U.N. Charter and the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), which legislates maritime behavior, would be a good start.
But the United States has not succeeded in convincing Asia-Pacific nations that these international laws are crucial to their foreign policy. Vietnam, the Philippines and Malaysia have all tacitly or explicitly admitted Beijing’s sovereignty over the islands and islets within the South China Sea’s nine-dashed line. However, these three countries have all seized some islands and islets on the Chinese side of the nine-dashed line. The United States has failed to fairly judge the dispute — in fact, once again, it encourages these nations to contest Chinese claims. And even though the United States has not ratified the UNCLOS, it has asked China to allow that convention to govern its maritime behavior. If the United States were a responsible actor in the region, it would have ensured everyone plays by the same set of rules.
China is open to working with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) to draw up and implement regional rules. In mid-September, China discussed with ASEAN nations a South China Sea Code of Conduct that would help reduce tensions and ensure responsible behavior. And in his keynote speech at the APEC summit, Chinese President Xi Jinping emphasized the importance of Asia-Pacific nations working together for their mutual benefit, and indicated a willingness to build regional consensus.
The United States pivot to Asia is not unwelcome — but for it to be a responsible and sensible policy, it has to be a balanced one. Otherwise, U.S. action will not only be counterproductive, but too costly for a nation currently mired in a budgetary quandary. No one wants the United States to stay away from East Asia — but if it can’t manage the task, perhaps it should stay focused on the problems within its own borders.
Shen Dingli is associate dean of the Institute of International Studies at Fudan University in Shanghai.