BBC Home > BBC News > Asia

Why Obama is making time for Asia

11 November 11 12:18
Posters showing the US and Indonesia presidents and their wives, in Jakarta on 9 November 2010
By Kim Ghattas
BBC News, Washington

President Barack Obama is taking a break from the moribund Middle East peace process, the vexing relationship with Pakistan, the frustrations of the war in Afghanistan and a eurozone crisis that is threatening America's shores in search of some positive headlines and opportunities in Asia and the Pacific.

Starting in his home state of Hawaii on Saturday where he will be playing host to the 21 leaders of the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (Apec) forum, Mr Obama will be working to consolidate a slow but steady shift towards Asia and the Pacific. After Hawaii, Mr Obama will travel to Australia, where military co-operation will be on the agenda.

In Bali, he will become the first American president to attend the East Asia Summit - a regional gathering that brings East and South Asian countries together with the US, Australia, New Zealand and Russia.

While the administration of ex-President George W Bush engaged with Asia, it had little patience for these kinds of elaborate meetings. But with America's interest in the region growing dramatically over the last two decades, the Obama administration declared early on that the US was not just an Atlantic power but also a Pacific power.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton made a blunt statement when she picked the region for her first trip abroad in February 2009. Not since Dean Rusk in 1961 had an American Secretary of State chosen Asia for a maiden voyage.

Since then Washington has worked hard to embed the US in the regional architecture, signing treaties, attending summits, launching or joining smaller regional initiatives.

The dividends of this approach, Washington hopes, are not only diplomatic, but also military, economic and strategic. Amidst all the talk about American decline, the Obama administration sees this as a way of making itself a key partner at the heart of where the action will be in the coming decades.

Power 'misconception'

In a recent piece for Foreign Policy magazine titled America's Pacific Century, Hillary Clinton argued that the Asia-Pacific region had become a key driver of global politics and represented a real 21st Century opportunity for the US.

Mrs Clinton wrote that over the next 10 years, the US had to be smart about where it invested time and energy so it could be in the best position to sustain its leadership, secure its interests and advance its values. While the US would not turn its back to its trans-Atlantic allies, this required a pivot to Asia, she added.

Although it makes no or few headlines, there seems to be consensus that the Obama administration's Asia policy is smart and has been successful. But it did require a correction in style, says Andrew Small, an Asia expert at the German Marshall Fund in Washington, because the US sounded too conciliatory towards China at the beginning.

"It created an impression with China that the US was in rapid decline and it encouraged an assertive Chinese attitude," said Mr Small. But the Obama administration pushed back over the last two years, laid down some clear markers that "corrected a complete misconception about power shift that the financial crisis had caused" in Beijing, he added.

The US has also used China's own assertive attitude in the region to strengthen its alliances with countries like Japan and South Korea which were rattled by Chinese muscle-flexing. The US is also building new partnerships with countries like Vietnam, which is one of the many countries worried about China's stance on the South China Sea.

No American official will describe the effort as an attempt to counter China's rise but there is a clear effort to build alliances in the region of the kind that China does not have. Inevitably that works to balance out Beijing's power.

Douglas Paal from Carnegie Endowment said Mr Obama would announce an agreement for access to wide open spaces in Australia for military exercises.

"You can't say it has nothing to do with a rising China but in fact it has more to do with a better management and organisation of our alliance structure in the region," he said.

'Share the burden'

But Justin Logan from the libertarian Cato institute in Washington also warns that the US could be repeating a pattern of dependency that developed with post World War II Europe, which Washington cannot afford any more.

Just like many Europeans countries, Asian countries do not spend much on their defence budget - for example, Japan spends just 1% of its GDP on defence and South Korea 3%.

"Instead of seeking to assuage their [Asian] partners' anxiety, America ought to sow doubt about its commitment to their security" said Mr Logan.

"Only then will they be forced to take up their share of the burden of hedging against Chinese expansionism. Otherwise, US defence secretaries may soon be complaining that their Asian partners, like the Europeans before them, won't get off the dole."

But one area where the US will not be able to do much "correction'' of its posture in Asia is the economy - Washington cannot do much, or certainly not very quickly, to rival China in the region as an economic partner.

And while Mr Obama will highlight the importance of trade deals with countries like South Korea and regional pacts like the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the US cannot trade itself out of its economic crisis.

So if Mr Obama is not coming back with jobs for Americans, what will he bring back from his 10 days away in the Asian-Pacific sunshine? Probably nothing very tangible - there will be no piece of paper or agreement that he can point to as a diplomatic success.

But Mr Small from GMF argues that an American presidential visit to the region is a success in its own right.

If the US indeed wants the Pacific century that is seen to be unfolding to be an American century it needs to be willing to invest in the multilateral architecture of Asia and the Pacific and show it has come to understand that the optics are important for Asia.

"The benefits they gain and the room [that Obama's visit] provides for behind the scene work down the road are enormous," said Mr Small.

Share this

Related BBC sites