The White House praised the U.S.’s alliances with Japan and South Korea as testaments to the president’s successful “pivot to Asia.”
“The United States has made a lot of important progress in strengthening our alliances throughout the Asia-Pacific, mobilizing resources that indicate our long-term commitment to that region of the world,” White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest said Wednesday.
“All of this is a testament to the progress that we’ve made in enhancing robust U.S. engagement in the Asia-Pacific region,” he further noted.
Earnest explained that the “deployment of additional military equipment and personnel to that region of the world to ensure that we’re mitigating and countering the threat that emanates from North Korea” demonstrates the significant progress the U.S. has made in realizing the goals of President Barack Obama’s strategic re-balance to Asia.
But, how is the pivot to Asia actually going?
The U.S., South Korea, and Japan have been working together to pressure North Korea to end its nuclear program. In the past year, Pyongyang has tested numerous ballistic missiles of varying types, everything from scuds to intermediate-range ballistic missiles to possible intercontinental ballistic missiles. North Korea has also conducted two nuclear tests, the latter of which had a yield of 10 kilotons, the largest to date.
“I think the notion of getting the North Koreans to denuclearize is probably a lost cause,” Director of National Intelligence James Clapper said during a Council on Foreign Relations meeting Tuesday.
In the Philippines, President Rodrigo Duterte, the leader of a country that was one of America’s strongest allies just a few months ago, previously said he wants U.S. troops out within two years.
“I do not want to see any military man of any other nation except for the Philippine soldier,” he said Tuesday. “I want, maybe in the next two years, my country to be free of the presence of foreign military troops.”
Duterte has also threatened to “break up with America” and pursue a “separation from America.” On one occasion, he even told Obama to “go to hell.”
He called for the cancellation of joint drills and war games with the U.S. It was argued that the cancellation was to avoid angering China. But, Duterte just agreed to conduct joint exercises with Japan in the South China Sea — a move that will surely infuriate the Chinese — so his decision to end joint operations with the U.S. is clearly a part of his disdain for America.
Australia, another key ally that initially signaled a willingness to cooperate with the U.S. to pressure China, refuses to participate in joint freedom of navigation operations with the U.S. in the South China Sea. The country is concerned that such behavior is overly provocative, which could “escalate tensions.”
Despite the relocation of more military assets to the Asia Pacific and increased U.S. freedom of navigation operations, China has managed to gain control of and militarize two of the three corners of the strategic triangle in the South China Sea.
It is possible that China will be able to gain full control of the Scarborough Shoal, the last territory needed to complete the strategic triangle, due to the deterioration of the U.S.-Philippine ties. In recent years, China has significantly increased its military presence in the region.
If China militarizes the Scarborough Shoal, it could maintain air defense across the South China Sea and even establish an Air Defense Identification Zone, potentially turning the militarily, politically, and economically important South China Sea into a “Chinese lake.”
With the death of Thailand’s King Bhumibol Adulyadej, who played an important role in preserving the long-standing U.S.-Thailand alliance, the U.S. relationship with Thailand is now shrouded in uncertainty. Mourning the loss of its king, Thailand is likely to become less involved in regional affairs.
Lastly, the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), Obama’s legacy trade deal is being crippled by both the Democratic and Republican nominees, who strongly oppose the deal. The TPP was billed as a counterweight to China. If the agreement falls through, it will embolden China and potentially reduce America’s power and influence in the region. U.S. Trade Representative Michael Froman aid in July that killing the TPP would “hand China the keys to the castle,” according to Reuters.
Evidence suggests that the pivot to Asia has lost momentum, indicating that the next president will have a lot to repair in the region.
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