U.S. President Barack Obama with former President of South Korea Lee Myung-bak at the Blue House in Seoul, South Korea
While much attention has been paid to the allegedly historic greenhouse gas emission agreement between China and the U.S. at the Asian Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) Summit this November, America and its allies should be concerned about President Obama’s central foreign policy objective — a “pivot” or “rebalance” to Asia. Nearly six years into Obama’s presidency, America has failed to back up its rhetoric with concrete actions while tensions in Asia have become higher and higher. More profoundly, the U.S. military is suffering from sequestration at a time when China is producing more and more state-of-the-art weaponry. The crisis in Ukraine and the rise of ISIS in the Middle East has further diverted America’s strategic focus from Asia, where there has been no substantial increase in U.S. military presence.
Although the U.S. is still unquestionably the strongest naval power in Asia, this status is increasingly questioned by allies and competitors alike. The number of U.S. aircraft carriers and their deployments is going to decrease in the near future even without budget cuts, and the administration has been slow in adding destroyers and amphibious troop transports to the region. To be fair, the U.S. has put more focus on increasing its allies’ capabilities to defend themselves against potential invasions, best shown by the U.S.-Japan defense treaty revision earlier this year. Placing more responsibilities on allies, however, does not equal a “pivot,” since the Nixon Doctrine did the same thing when the U.S. was reducing its commitments in Asia after the Vietnam War. On the economic side, the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal, proposed by Obama in 2009 to promote closer economic relations between Pacific Rim countries, is still facing Congressional obstacles and has a slim chance of success anytime soon.
China’s continuing efforts to modernize its military — in contrast with the slowdown in U.S. defense development — does not bode well for the pivot either. In addition to its plans to build a second aircraft carrier in the next six years, the Chinese navy has also acquired more advanced missile-guided vessels and anti-ship missiles. Furthermore, China’s air force now possesses new Airborne Warning and Control System (AWACS) aircrafts, and is developing fifth generation stealth fighters such as the J-20 and J-31.
The United States, in comparison, has stopped its production of F-22s and faces budget cuts in its F-35 program. Adding insult to injury, a Chinese official recently claimed that a J-31 could defeat a F-35 in aerial combat. While the Obama administration has played down the importance of nuclear weapons in international politics, China has taken measures to enlarge its stockpile of nuclear warheads and enhance its second-strike capabilities. America’s dwindling commitment to defense has made its military less credible in the eyes of its allies and less prepared to respond to any contingencies in Asia.
But U.S. rhetoric has been no more assertive. From the very start of his presidency, Obama has portrayed the U.S. as a “Pacific power,” while his “Pivot to Asia” has received high media attention, including negative receptions in China. That the U.S. pledged to support Japan in the conflict over the Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands only confirmed to China that Obama is determined to contain its rise. As a result, Sino-U.S. relations have deteriorated. Obama’s pivot has failed to alleviate China’s long-held suspicion of U.S. intentions, let alone convince China to become a responsible stakeholder in the international system.
Unfortunately for Obama, his attempts to strategically refocus on Asia have been foiled by events in Eastern Europe and the Middle East. Russia’s annexation of Crimea forced NATO to intensify its military posture in Eastern Europe and pushed the Ukrainian crisis to the fore. Furthermore, Obama’s premature withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq (or, as he described it in the 2012 presidential election, the end of the Iraq War), has paved the way for Islamic terrorists to wreak havoc in the region, prompting the return of the U.S. military. As a result, his “Pivot to Asia” has fallen by the wayside.
Obama still has two more years to salvage his “Pivot to Asia” if he really does intend to rebalance U.S. power to the region. But by being both provocative and weak for the past six years, Asia today is less stable and full of uncertainties.
Zihao Liu is a senior at Cornell University, majoring in History as part of the College Scholar Program.