The Real Pivot Toward Asia

Back in 2009, President Barack Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton made much of their “pivot toward Asia”. After all, the country had its first president with Asian roots. Obama was born in Hawaii and spent his adolescent years with his mother and step-father in Indonesia. The Middle East was “so George W Bush”, and the 21st Century belonged to a rising China. So, how did that go?

One “liberal, internationalist” pro-Clinton observer, Foreign Policy Magazine, summarized the results as follows:

– One success: the establishment of an enduring framework for engagement with Southeast Asia, particularly Vietnam. Enough time had passed since the Vietnam War, and China’s neighbors were looking for a counterweight to the bully next door.

– One sub-par performance: Whereas President Bush had handed off strong and trusting relationships with China, India, and Japan, President Obama left a “very tense” relationship with China and and uncertainty in the Japanese government about American reliability. After initially recognizing China’s “core interests” in Asia, Obama increased American military presence in Australia and the Philippines, then endorsed Xi Jinping’s “New Model of Great Power Relations”. The neighbors understood the goal of a China – America duopoly with their interests far secondary.

– One lost opportunity: trade. Much effort was put into the Trans Pacific Partnership trade agreement – involving twelve countries, but not China – which would have reduced tariff and other barriers to trade, and established a dispute resolution forum. Opposed by unions and Trump’s Make America Great Again supporters, it was disavowed by both Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump. The trade deficit with China grew 53% from $226 billion in 2009 to $347 billion in 2016.

– One dangerous incomplete: Per Foreign Policy, relative to North Korea “The Obama administration realized the futility of diplomatic deals early on, though it never came up with a policy to replace the previous approach.”

Comparable appraisals of the Obama Administration’s failed pivot to Asia are shared by the (British) Guardian, the Japan Times, Bloomberg, and The Diplomat. By all accounts, Donald Trump inherited a losing hand.

President Trump’s current two week trip to Asia should be seen in the context of events over the past 10 months, particularly the decimation of ISIS and the quiet rolling out of a realpolitik strategy in the Middle East. With American advisers playing a stronger role, modified Rules of Engagement, and alignment with effective partners, ISIS has been driven from virtually all of their territory in Iraq and Syria, tens of thousands of ISIS combatants have been killed, and the exodus of refugees to Europe has slowed to a trickle.  With little attention, the administration has sided with the central government in Baghdad over the independence aspirations of the Kurds. Iraq, done. Similarly, the administration has acknowledged that Assad has won the 6 1/2 year civil war in Syria, with just a few details to work out. We’ll support Saudi Arabia in their broader contest with Iran, but it is largely their fight.

Trump has also done much preparation for the current trip. His first meeting after his election was with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in November. They met again in February, and again, along with South Korean President Moon Jae-in, in September. They golf together; they seem to like each other. Along the way he met with Chinese Premier Xi Jinping at Mar-a-Lago in April and in Hamburg, Germany in July. If personal diplomacy works, Trump has done the groundwork.

The issues are straightforward, and Trump articulates the American position clearly.

1. North Korea must not be allowed to take the final steps in developing nuclear missiles. A preemptive strike is on the table. A Chinese embargo – or political intervention – would be preferable.

2. The United States cannot continue to live with a $350 billion trade deficit with China. Particular focus will be on aviation where China seeks to become a third major international manufacturer alongside Boeing and European Airbus, and Boeing has entered agreements to manufacture aircraft in China and share research and development. Several deals – such as a $1 billion supply agreement for American beef – are being formalized. Unlike with President Obama, the agenda does not include much on climate change and human rights.

3. The rest of the trip is about reassuring allies, and developing bargaining chips with China.

Despite the distractions of the swamp in Washington, Trump has a clear vision of American objectives in Asia, a willingness to prioritize the region, the personal interaction skills to make his points, and a phenomenal amount of energy. Godspeed.

www.RightinSanFrancisco.com – 10/10/17

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