Imperfect legacy? Analysing the 'pivot' through Obama’s final tour of Asia



As President Obama recently embarked on his final diplomatic tour of Asia in a series of international summits, many have asked what the sum total of his administration’s ‘pivot’ to Asia policy will amount to and what influence it has had on the region. It is evident that, despite significant economic and diplomatic gains throughout his presidency, Obama’s final trip to Asia was met with symbolic provocations which stand to challenge US foreign policy efforts in the region.

Long-standing major power tensions were once again reignited at the G20 summit in Hangzhou between China and the USA. In what appeared to be a diplomatic snubbing on China’s part, Obama was denied a traditional red carpet entrance and forced to depart unconventionally out of the rear exit of Air Force One, leading to a war of words between Chinese and US officials. Ahead of the G20 summit, tensions between Obama and Chinese President Xi Jinping simmered over China’s territorial expansion in the South China Sea. Obama warned China that there would be consequences for it not acting in accordance with international maritime law, stating, ‘Part of what I’ve tried to communicate to President Xi is that the United States arrives at its power, in part, by restraining itself’.

Obama was faced with other challenges with emerging powers in Asia, such as the disrespectful comments made by Filipino president Rodrigo Duterte. Duterte’s noxious remarks were filled with post-colonial sentiment, in which he attempted to convey that he would not allow Obama to lecture him on human rights violations. This led the Obama Administration to cancel a planned meeting between the two leaders. Tensions between the US and North Korea continue to simmer, marked by Pyongyang’s latest nuclear test. Obama warned for further sanctions against the rogue state and claimed that it was a ‘grave threat to regional security’.

Perhaps the biggest disappointment of this trip, and potentially Obama’s legacy in Asia, is that he’s been unable to persuade Congress to ratify the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) deal, and is unlikely to do so before the end of his presidency. Obama is the first US president to meet with all ten leaders of ASEAN; this deepened engagement was chiefly influenced by a desire to strengthen trade partnerships. But since it appears that the US congressional gridlock will block the deal’s ratification, a cloud of uncertainty hangs over one of the pivot’s core features. The TPP is key to the US’ relationship with Asia going forward, and its failure would not reflect kindly on the pivot’s legacy.

To Obama’s credit, there have been successes in the pivot. Despite growing bilateral tensions, the 2015 Paris Climate Pact between China and the US can be considered one of the great regional successes of the Obama Administration. Despite differences on the issues of military power, cyber security and territorial expansion, the two great powers were able to broker a historic deal in the effort to reduce greenhouse gases. Furthermore, Obama can be proud of deepened diplomatic and strategic ties with Asia-Pacific partners new and old, such as Vietnam, Japan, South Korea, Australia, Myanmar and Malaysia. Through deeper involvement in Asia, the US has also strengthened its ties and influence within regional bodies such as the EAS, APEC and ASEAN.

Despite these successes, history may still read the pivot’s legacy as being characterised by recurring challenges and missed opportunities. Obama believed efforts to increase diplomacy and economic engagement with China would defuse geopolitical competition and great power tensions between Washington and Beijing. Currently, US-China relations are as strained as ever due to these sustained challenges, and both parties appear unable to build stronger ties with one another based on the competitive nature of their relationship. Beijing is hostile towards Obama’s condemnation of its territorial expansion in the South China Sea, which reflects its resistance to Obama’s deepening of the US’ role and influence in the Asia-Pacific.

The problem of North Korea has only worsened; Obama’s influence in the Asia-Pacific through both diplomacy and sanctions has been unable to curb North Korea’s antagonistic disregard for global security. And on the point of antagonistic voices in the Asia-Pacific: although vulgar, Duterte’s remarks of Obama are symbolic of an emerging power rejecting the extent of the US’ position and influence in the region.

As Obama has sought to deepen the US’ economic ties within the Asia-Pacific, the lion’s share of the pivot’s legacy falls on whether the TPP is ratified. While the Obama administration has done well to strengthen diplomatic ties with emerging economies in the region, the passing of the TPP would be the crowning economic achievement of US statecraft under Obama. If it fails, then history may remember the pivot for its setbacks of long-standing hostilities between great powers and rogue states, not for its success of deepened US economic engagement in the region.

Matthew Holding is the United States Fellow for Young Australians in International Affairs.

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