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Obama’s Legacy In Asia On The Line With Last Presidential Trip To The Region

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Ryan Pickrell China/Asia Pacific Reporter
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The president is in Asia on what will likely be his last trip to the region before he leaves office, and there are still many major policy issues hanging in the balance.

President Barack Obama is in Asia until Sept. 9 for the Group of 20 (G20) summit in China and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and East Asia summits in Laos. This is Obama’s 11th trip to Asia as president, and Obama is expected to use this trip to the region to further a core component of his foreign policy agenda, the pivot to Asia.

“We see this trip as really bringing together a number of the president’s top priorities for the last seven and a half years,” explained Ben Rhodes, Deputy National Security Advisor for Strategic Communications, during a recent press briefing.

Obama will either make progress on the pivot during this trip or leave behind a mess in Asia for the next president to clean up.

While in Asia, Obama will address issues ranging from territorial disputes in the South China Sea to cyberespionage, from human rights violations to spats over missile shields. He will also pursue key climate change goals and push forward his visions for regional trade and economic integration.

Obama has long been eager to realize his strategic rebalance to Asia. “The United States has invested blood and treasure to advance this vision,” Obama said in Australia halfway through his second term in office. “Generations have served and died in the Asia Pacific so that the people of the region might live free. So no one should ever question our resolve or our commitment,” the president added.

The pivot to Asia has been a struggle though.

Obama’s efforts to shift U.S. diplomatic and military strength from the Middle Eastern quagmire to the Asia Pacific have largely been stymied as his legacy trade deal, the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) languishes under strong opposition from both the right and the left in U.S. domestic politics. Furthermore, China is countering the expansion of America’s military and geopolitical presence in the Asia Pacific by throwing its weight around in military affairs, regional politics, and economics.

The U.S., so far, has been unable to fully achieve its goals for the Asia-Pacific region. Asia is possibly more tense and unstable now than it was before Obama got his hands on it, argues the Wall Street Journal’s Michael Auslin.

In dealing with China, the U.S. has chosen to resort to shows of force, such as intimidating military deployments and freedom of navigation operations, signaling that diplomacy has failed in the region.

The U.S.-China relationship is heated. “The president’s two terms have been marked above all by a significant intensification of the long-standing geopolitical rivalry between the United States and China,” writes Aaron Friedberg, a non-resident senior fellow with the German Marshall Fund.

For U.S. allies, the situation is not much better.

Japan has been given free rein to militarize, which has allowed disputes over the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands to escalate. Chinese provocations in disputed waters have become more frequent, frustrating Japan, which is now upping its defense spending and upgrading its military hardware near the contested islands.

South Korea is torn over U.S. plans to deploy a Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) missile shield in Seongju, and China, Russia, and North Korea are outraged over what they perceive as threats to their national security. Tension between China and South Korea has increased significantly since the THAAD deployment plans were officially announced in early July.

Australia is caught between a rock and a hard place, closer economic ties with China or a stronger military alliance with the U.S.

Foreign policy in the Philippines has been completely upended since President Rodrigo Duterte took office, a sign of democratic regression in Asia. A self-proclaimed socialist, Duterte has pulled away from both the U.S. and increased his anti-American rhetoric. Under former president Aquino, the Philippines was a staunch U.S. ally and a strong democratic power in the Asia-Pacific region, but that has changed.

Asia is divided on issues spanning the entirety of East Asia, from the Korean peninsula to the East and South China Sea, and tensions are running high. An Asian arms race is already underway.

Also, the 12-member TPP is on the rocks domestically because Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, as well as several leading figures in Congress, oppose this free-trade agreement. With the TPP in jeopardy, America’s credibility as a regional leader is in question.

“[The TPP] is seen as a demonstration of America’s commitment to be a Pacific power,” explained Rhodes at Monday’s press briefing. If the deal falls through, it will signal that the U.S. is unprepared to lead in Asia, and it will embolden China, pushing it to counter the TPP with the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) which excludes the U.S.

Obama was right to realize the strategic importance of the Asia-Pacific region, but the implementation of U.S. foreign policies in the region have been inconsistent and, at times, ineffective.

How Obama interacts with state leaders on the sidelines of the upcoming summits will cement the president’s legacy in Asia and set the stage for U.S. interactions with Asia under new presidential leadership next year.

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