Three years later, Asian allies of the US are worried that America may not be able to sustain the pivot to the region because of financial difficulties.
As he swings through Japan, South Korea, the Philippines and Malaysia this week, US President Barack Obama might have a hard time convincing the region that his confrontation with Russia over Ukraine does not further undermine his much-touted pivot to Asia. When Obama outlined the policy of rebalancing to Asia in late 2011, America’s regional allies were enthused and China was deeply concerned.
Three years later, Asian allies of the US are worried that America may not be able to sustain the pivot to the region because of financial difficulties, lack of political will and preoccupation with the Middle East and Europe. As its power continues to grow, Beijing appears to be far more confident today that the bark of the US pivot to Asia might be worse than its bite.
If Hillary Clinton, the US secretary of state during Obama’s first term as president, was an active champion of the pivot to Asia, her successor John Kerry has been devoting most of his diplomatic energies to the Middle East peace process. Obama’s vacillations in Syria, too, tended to reinforce east Asian worries that America is in a mood of retrenchment. The unexpected crisis in Ukraine and the consequent tensions between the US and Russia have made matters worse. America’s inability to prevent the Russian annexation of Crimea in Ukraine has made many of China’s neighbours ask if Washington will acquiesce in the face of similar actions by Beijing in Asia. Many countries in Asia, including Japan, the Philippines, Vietnam and India, are locked in intensifying territorial disputes with China.
Obama’s strategic problem now is to reassure east Asian allies of the strength of American commitment to them without provoking an unwanted conflict between the US and China. To be sure, the Obama administration has cautioned China against forcibly changing the territorial status quo. At the same time, the US has until recently been unwilling to take sides in territorial disputes between China and its neighbours. Obama did extend guarded support to Japan on the territorial dispute with China during his visit to Tokyo. Obama has no desire to abandon US allies in Asia. But he is also deeply aware of the growing economic interdependence with China and the imperative of deeper political engagement with Beijing. If Obama tilts too far in either direction, he could shatter the increasingly fragile stability in Asia.
The contradiction between deterring China from military adventures and reassuring Beijing’s neighbours is only one part of Obama’s problem. The other is the deepening division among US allies and friends in Asia. In north-east Asia, Obama is trying hard to bridge the differences between Japan and South continued…