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Despite Bumps, Obama Steers Course for Asia-Pacific Pivot
The Washington Diplomat / March 2015

By Larry Luxner

With Republicans now firmly in control of both houses of Congress, President Obama faces potentially bruising battles this year over everything from immigration policy to lifting the embargo against Cuba. But on one issue — Obama’s goal of a “rebalancing” to the Asia-Pacific region — most Americans see eye to eye with the president, according to polls.

In fact, says the Center for Strategic & International Studies, the so-called “Asia pivot” is perhaps the most bipartisan foreign policy issue in Washington.

For this reason, the White House and GOP lawmakers must work together to “chart a common course” on U.S. policy towards Asia over the next two years — starting with passage of the Trans-Pacific Partnership by this summer.

“Most of us would agree that the most important thing the U.S. can do to cement our long-term engagement in the Asia-Pacific region is to complete negotiations for the Trans-Pacific Partnership,” said Michael J. Green, who oversees the Asia program at CSIS. “Our report recommends that the president follow up on statements he made in December that he was ready to move forward in spite of opposition from some of his own political base.”

According to Green, “TPP will be the defining element of the Obama administration’s Asia policy if we can get it done. [Senate Majority Leader Mitch] McConnell said this is one area where the White House and Congress can work together well.”

Green, speaking Jan. 5 at a CSIS event attended by about 200 people, outlined six key recommendations for the president to consider as he faces off against the GOP-dominated 114th Congress in the final two years of his administration. Besides trade, the report urges Obama to:

* implement recently concluded U.S.-China confidence-building measures and move toward a “win-win approach to regional institution-building” such as the Asian Infrastructure Development Bank, with a clearer demonstration of costs when Beijing uses coercion or doesn’t play by the rules.

* produce an East Asia Strategy Report clarifying the objectives of the rebalance; fund military construction necessary to realign U.S. forces in the Pacific, and pass a nonbinding budget resolution that sets spending above the sequestration caps and lays the groundwork for increased spending in the reconciliation process.

* enhance U.S. capabilities to deter and defend South Korea against ballistic missile and cyber attacks from North Korea, work to improve relations between Tokyo and Seoul, and include human rights in the overall approach to North Korea.

* ensure that the new defense framework agreement with India provides new vision and clarity on the future of defense ties, and push congressional leaders to devote more attention to the U.S. relationship with India.

* Expand democracy-building support ahead of elections later this year in Myanmar; further institutionalize the U.S.-Indonesia Comprehensive Partnership; arrange a presidential visit to Vietnam and rally international support for the Philippines’ case against Chinese territorial ambitions in the South China Sea.

Green said a completed TPP, with 12 countries, would create the largest free-trade area in which the United States participates — far larger than the North American Free Trade Agreement encompassing the U.S., Canada and Mexico — and that without the TPP, regional actors will view Obama’s pivot with skepticism.

“Unless you have a high-level, sustained case being made to the American public and Congress, you can’t get these things done. The window is narrow. An agreement has to be reached primarily with Japan,” he said, noting that the differences which remain are on relatively insignificantly areas. “On 95 percent of the TPP chapters with Japan, we have a common view.”

Green suggested that trade policy remains an issue which divides Democrats but unites Republicans. For this reason, he says Obama must actively manage his party’s politics while cooperating with GOP majorities in Congress who will provide most of the votes. A realistic estimate is that it would take six months to get “fast track authority” with a bill presented to Congress in late 2015.

With regard to China, Green told his audience “the prospects for a major breakthrough in U.S.-China relations are small, but there are some stabilizing elements in the relationship.”

Bonnie S. Glaser, who holds the Freeman Chair in China Studies at CSIS, said Obama should continue to raise human rights concerns with Chinese President Xi Jinping, and that U.S. officials should keep meeting with Chinese dissidents.

Yet furthering the implementation of “conflict-avoidance mechanisms” must remain a priority in the military-to-military arena, she said. The Pentagon should also offer China incentives to engage in cooperative behaviors in the East and South China Seas — where six countries have overlapping claims — while imposing costs for destablizing, coercive actions.

“The jury is still out as to whether we’ll see a reduction in some of China’s more provocative policies, with regard to territorial disputes,” Glaser said. “That’s what the U.S. is particularly concerned about. We don’t want to see China intimidate its neighbors.”

With that in mind, Green warned that defense budget cuts could undermine U.S. engagement in the region at a time of increasing Chinese aggressiveness and a “diminished willingness to respond to the international community” on human rights.

When Obama first announced his rebalance strategy, the Budget Control Act cut $487 billion from the 10-year Pentagon budget plan, with sequestration slashing another $470 billion over the next nine years. These reductions came on top of earlier defense spending cuts initiated by the Pentagon itself, which eliminated another $300 billion.

Without additional resources, he said, U.S. leaders face a choice between sustaining existing capacity and developing new ones.

“We’re coming down to crunch time over the next few years,” Green warned. “At the current rate of defense cuts, we will start facing choices. Do we invest in new capabilities to counter missile threats and cyberthreats in the Western Pacific, or do we sustain our traditional platforms like aircraft carriers? The right answer is we do both, but we’re getting to the point where we’ll have to choose.”

CSIS also urges Obama to visit Vietnam following his September 2014 decision to partially lift the ban on the sale of U.S. weapons to Vietnam. The ideal time for such a trip, it suggests, would be next November, when Obama is scheduled to attend the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in the Philippines as well as the East Asia Summit in Malaysia.

“It’s time for President Obama to go to Vietnam, where we have an increasingly important relationship. This is not easy because of human rights violations,” Green said, noting that “we need to support countries like the Philippines that are pursuing legal means to address China’s claim of territorial rights in the South China Sea.”

The region’s biggest flashpoint is, of course, North Korea. Pyongyang’s alleged involvement in the recent cyberattacks against Sony Corp. in response to the entertainment conglomerate’s planned Christmas Day release of “The Interview” grabbed headlines worldwide — and once again raised tensions on the Korean Peninsula.

In any event, CSIS says the Obama administration must be prepared to meet a range of provocations “with concrete measures that acknowledge the necessity of deterring a nuclear North Korea.” This include deploying more advanced missile defense systems on the peninsula, as well as encouraging South Korea to enhance its joint operational capabilities with existing U.S. missile defense assets and intelligence in the region.

In addition, it urges the White House to work behind the scenes to mend relations between South Korea and Japan — Asia’s two most important advanced industrialized democracies. After all, 2015 marks the 50th anniversary of normalization of those ties.

“Given the movement on condemning North Korean human rights violations, human rights should be a more central part of U.S. policy toward North Korea,” said Green. “It is also strategically imperative for the U.S. to work on improving Japan-Korea relations. This creates foreign policy complications. Korea has information-sharing agreements with 25 countries, but not with Japan.”

Victor Cha, a senior adviser who holds the Korea Chair at CSIS, said South Korea has been “quite aggressive” in trying to develop a strategic understanding with Beijing” on its unpredictable neighbor to the north.

“This is one of the reasons [South Korean President] Park Geun-hye has been so enthusiastic and to have as many meetings as possible,” he explained. “Contrary to some perceptions, I don’t think South Koreans are doing this hard push on China because of Japan. That doesn’t mean the Chinese don’t see it that way.”

In the midst of uncertainty, a few Asia-Pacific success stories do shine through. One is Indonesia, where the election of Joko Widodo as president prompted The Economist to recently name Indonesia its runner-up “country of the year” (the top award went to Tunisia).

In recognition of Jakarta’s growing strategic importance, CSIS announced Jan. 6 that it is renewing the Derwin Pereira Indonesia Initiative, which studies the emerging powerhouse of 250 million people. Ernest Bower, Sumitro Chair for Southeast Asia Studies at CSIS, will lead the one-year initiative.

“Indonesia’s rising power will be felt more tangibly in time. This project will capturethe essence of its rise in the economic, political and strategic fields,” said Pereira, who has followed developments in the world’s largest predominantly Muslim nation since 1995. “Jokowi’s presidency marks a transition from Suharto’s authoritarian-led growth to a more sustainable, democratically based growth model, founded on transparency and accountability but also characterized by a laser-like focus on competence and effective governance.”

Another potential bright spot is Burma (Myanmar), where longtime democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi is widely expected to sweep elections scheuled for later this year — giving her National League for Democracy party control of parliament for the first time ever.

“The administration has played a very responsible role in Myanmar. Our ambassador in Rangoon [Derek Mitchell] is a former CSIS staffer,” said Bower. “I think the administration really needs to work hard on the Hill to make sure there are no unrealistic expectations, but that we do have a very nuanced and effective advocacy for human rights in Myanmar. If we don’t lead with those points, we’ll lose a lot of ground in Asia.”

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