President Obama’s Pivot to Asia Fails to Deter China


It is tragic and fitting that President Barack Obama’s latest failure to reach a cease-fire in Syria would take place at Hangzhou, China, on the sidelines of the G-20 summit Monday.

It’s tragic because this latest diplomatic flop in Syria will mean the death toll in that civil war, already at a staggering 400,000, will grow. It’s fitting, though, because the rationale for Obama’s reluctance to intervene in Syria goes back to a first-term strategy to pivot diplomatic attention and military hardware away from wars in the Middle East to the Asia-Pacific region.

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Susan Rice, Obama’s national security adviser, helpfully explained all this in a post at Medium over the weekend. She wrote that Obama understood the U.S. needed to focus on the Asia-Pacific, even though the wars he was trying to end were half a world away. The “Rebalance to Asia,” as Rice is now calling it, was born.

She writes, “In endeavoring to renew and strengthen U.S. leadership in the 21st century, President Obama recognized that failing to reorient our foreign policy toward the region would not only be imprudent, it would also be potentially perilous.” (Positively!)

The rest of the post reads like an extended high five. There is an animation about the Trans-Pacific Partnership and a bunch of feel-good Obama quotes. Leaders have been engaged. Alliances have been strengthened.

To give Rice and Obama some credit, they are correct about the importance of the region. After the 9/11 terrorist attacks, much U.S. attention was focused on the Muslim world and wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. China is a rising power and the U.S. is well served by re-investing in its relationships with Japan, South Korea and the Philippines and forging new partnerships with Vietnam, India and Myanmar.

In this sense the Asia pivot has produced some tangible results. Obama also got China to agree to begin cutting carbon emissions by 2030. In 2015, he ironed out a deal with China on cyber-attacks to establish some rules of the road in this new field of great power competition.

But despite the rebalance/pivot, Obama has yet to do much about the elephant in the room, Beijing’s aggressive moves in the South China Sea to dredge up new islands and lay claim to the territorial waters of other U.S. allies like the Philippines. Its neighbors fear that China is unilaterally staking claim to the waterways that are the economic lifeline of the region.

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SOURCE: Eli Lake 
Bloomberg View

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