The Pacific Pivot: How Obama’s Massive Foreign Policy Shift Ended Up In Tatters

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Ryan Pickrell China/Asia Pacific Reporter
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President Barack Obama’s greatest foreign policy achievement was meant to be his “pivot to Asia,” but while there were successes, his dream was never fully realized.

China is rapidly expanding its sphere of influence and tightening its grip on the seas, North Korea is stronger and more aggressive, Obama’s legacy free-trade agreement is all but buried, and American allies and strategic partners are losing confidence in American promises and are even tilting towards America’s strategic rivals.

“U.S. interests in Asia appear to be much less secure and more threatened than they were eight years ago,” Dr. Michael Auslin, an Asian politics and security expert at the American Enterprise Institute and author of the recently-released “End of The Asian Century,” told the Daily Caller News Foundation.

“At best, the pivot is incomplete, and at worst, it did nothing to address concerning trend lines in Asia,” he added.

In the simplest of terms, “the inability to protect and secure U.S. interests in Asia makes the pivot a failure,” Auslin told TheDCNF.

Obama aimed to make this century “America’s Pacific Century” by facilitating the resurgence of American preeminence in the critical Asia-Pacific region, and throughout his presidency, Obama repeatedly emphasized — in word but not always deed — his commitment to the region.

“I have directed my national security team to make our presence and missions in the Asia Pacific a top priority,” Obama announced in 2011.

“We are here to stay,” he added.

“American leadership in the Asia Pacific will always be a fundamental focus of my foreign policy,” Obama said in 2014.

Through the “pivot to Asia,” Obama sought to restore American power and influence in the vital Asia-Pacific region. The pivot attempted to contain and engage China by deepening cooperation with U.S. allies and partners, improving trade, and increasing America’s regional military presence. Obama’s plans, which were consistently unclear, did not pan out the way he intended.

“We are losing ground in Asia, and the [Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP)] is dead,” Auslin explained, assessing the ultimate outcome of the pivot.

While the pivot had some early successes, many are unraveling as greater and more serious threats arise, signaling that the strategic rebalance to the Asia Pacific did not produce the results the president promised. The Obama administration failed to curb Chinese behavior as a major destabilizing force in the Asia Pacific.

China recognizes this reality.

“Without [Obama], China would have faced a more challenging U.S. side,” Liu Weidong, a Chinese scholar at the Institute of American Studies at the China Academy of Social Sciences, argued in January.

U.S.-China “relations are deteriorating,” Dr. Scott Kennedy, deputy director of the Freeman Chair in China Studies at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), told TheDCNF. China’s nationalistic foreign policies have consistently resulted in “greater challenges to the U.S. presence in Asia.”

China “has increased its assertive behavior step-by-step over the last decade,” Kennedy further commented.

The effectiveness of U.S. responses to these challenges has been limited.

In the South China Sea, China has already secured control of the “strategic triangle” — the Paracel Islands, the Spratly Islands, and the Scarborough Shoal. Through extensive land reclamation activities carried out at a scale and pace exceeding all other regional claimant states combined, China has constructed numerous artificial islands. China has also militarized many of its maritime outposts, creating “unsinkable aircraft carriers” in the South China Sea to boost its military presence in the region.

Chinese President Xi Jinping made a public promise to Obama in September 2015 that China would not militarize the South China Sea, but China has openly violated that promise.

In addition to the deployment of fighters and missile systems to the Paracels and the construction of fortified military aircraft hangars, radars, and point-defense installations in the Spratlys last year, hundreds of surface-to-air missiles are currently awaiting deployment to the South China Sea.

Obama repeatedly warned of  “consequences” if China did not play by the rules. Criticisms and freedom-of-navigation operations (FONOPS), which Obama hesitantly agreed to long after China had already achieved an almost-unshakable level of entrenchment, have done little more than irritate China. Beijing has since managed to intimidate allies Australia, Japan, and the Philippines to prevent them from participating in joint operations to contest China’s claims to the region.

Ruling on a case unilaterally submitted by the Philippines in 2013, the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague discredited China’s vast claims to the South China Sea, including the nine-dashed line, on July 12, 2016. While the ruling constituted a win for the U.S., the Philippines, and the rules-based international order, the Obama administration let this victory, an excellent opportunity to put pressure on China and introduce the rule of law into regional disputes, slip through its fingers.

“Washington hoped that the arbitration case would provide a legal basis for deployment of greater diplomatic pressure, as well as military assets to prevent Chinese domination of the world’s most important waterway,” Richard Javad Heydarian, a respected Filipino foreign affairs expert, explained.

Instead, China was permitted to completely dismiss the ruling, which it called a “farce,” and undermine international legal norms.

Over the course of Obama’s presidency, China has become much more brazen in its encounters with the U.S. at sea. China openly harassed the USNS Impeccable in 2009 and demanded a U.S. P-8A Poseidon surveillance aircraft leave a Chinese “military alert zone” arbitrarily established in the South China Sea in May 2015. In December of last year, the Chinese navy unlawfully seized a U.S. naval unmanned underwater vehicle operating legally in international waters.

Inaction has emboldened China, and Obama’s attempts to use diplomacy to change Chinese behavior have proven ineffective.

“All parties should refrain from provocative actions and the use of intimidation, coercion, or aggression to advance their claims. Disputes should be resolved peacefully and in accordance with international law,” former Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel  “told Chinese Defense Minister Chang Wanquan in 2014. “On this issue, we will make no compromise, no concessions, no trading, and not even a tiny bit of violation is allowed,” Chang replied, creating a diplomatic roadblock with no way forward.

In economics, the TPP, a 12-nation free-trade agreement billed as a counterweight to China and designed to block Chinese efforts to turn economic strength into coercive hard power, is on its last leg.

The Obama administration argued that if America does not step up and write the rules for regional trade, “competitors who don’t share our values, like China, will step in and fill that void.”

The U.S. is close to “either cementing our leadership in the region or handing the keys to the castle to China,” U.S. Trade Representative Michael Froman stressed in an official statement in July 2016.

Obama failed to build up domestic support for the TPP in a way that would have guaranteed its success, and the results were costly.

The economic component of the pivot “never received the attention it deserved, ultimately resulting in the humiliating failure to ratify the TPP,” Gregory Poling, director of the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative and a fellow with the Southeast Asia Program at CSIS, told TheDCNF.

“The failure of the TPP undermined the central goal of the pivot. It made many (but certainly not all) in the region wonder whether China had been right all along — that the U.S. is a declining power and that Asian states better get behind China as regional hegemon,” he further explained.

Obama’s inability to push the TPP through Congress sent a message to Asia that he was never as serious about the pivot to Asia as he claimed to be. The greatest failure of the pivot was the economic component.

On the Korean Peninsula, U.S. efforts to pressure North Korea, through sanctions, displays of force, and the deployment of missile shields and other weapons systems, have been met with resistance from China, interfering with Obama’s strategy and contributing to the rise of a much more powerful and aggressive North Korea.

North Korea has conducted four nuclear tests since Obama took office, with two tests occurring in 2016. North Korea has also carried out numerous ballistic missile tests, with more than 20 tests last year.

Kim Jong-un is reportedly on track to develop a nuclear-tipped intercontinental ballistic missile.

Pyongyang called the Obama administration a “total failure” in November last year.

“Washington’s hope for North Korea’s denuclearization is an illusion,” the Rodong Sinmun wrote that same month, “The only accomplishment of the Obama administration is that it is leaving behind for the new administration the burden of having to deal with a strong nuclear power.”

North Korea could possess as many as one hundred nuclear weapons in less than half a decade, reports the RAND Corporation, a U.S. think tank.

U.S. allies Japan and South Korea “are losing faith in the U.S. nuclear umbrella and are upset by the U.S. failure to constrain [North Korean] nuclear developments,” RAND asserted in its recent report.

China is already reaching out to opposition parties in South Korea, taking advantage of the political crisis in the country, to secure a more favorable position for itself, potentially at the expense of U.S.-South Korean ties.

While some allies are losing confidence in U.S. commitments, others have become openly anti-American, a shift that rival powers China and Russia are watching closely and exploiting when possible.

President of the Philippines Rodrigo Duterte, frustrated by the Obama administration’s criticisms of his brutal war on drugs, called Obama a “son of a whore” in September 2016 and told him to “go to hell” one month later.

In several foul-mouthed rants, Duterte cancelled joint military patrols with the U.S. in the South China Sea, as well as certain joint military exercises. He has also called for the removal of U.S. troops and has even threatened to tear up the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA), originally heralded as a sign of excellent U.S.-Philippine relations, and other relevant agreements.

“I announce my separation from the United States,” Duterte said in Beijing in October last year, demonstrating a desire to pursue a foreign policy independent of the U.S. “I’ve realigned myself to your ideological flow and maybe I will also go to Russia to talk to [President Vladimir] Putin and tell him that there are three of us against the world – China, the Philippines, and Russia. It’s the only way,” he added.

China and Russia have both taken advantage of the rift created by tensions between Manila and Washington, with China agreeing to sell arms to the Philippines and Russian warships making unprecedented visits to the island nation.

The most successful component of the pivot was probably the strengthening of the U.S.-Japanese relationship, a byproduct of increased tension with China, a common concern shared by both the U.S. and Japan.

Another noteworthy achievement was Obama’s outreach to Southeast Asian states, particularly the lifting of sanctions on Myanmar and his state visit to and contributions to unexploded ordnance clearance in Laos.

These accomplishments, however, mean little in the larger context of all that the pivot to Asia was expected to achieve.

Both Auslin and Poling said that if they had to give the pivot a letter grade, they would give it a “C.” The Obama administration was wise to raise the issue of Asia, but it did not adequately prepare for the level of resistance it encountered from China.

Obama “has enabled China, and that’s the problem,” economist and University of Maryland professor Peter Morici explained. “He stood by while China built the islands in the South China Sea and what are supposed to be neutral waters, militarized them, intimidated their neighbors, and we’ve lost face with allies, like the Philippines. He tried to make China back down … but when the Chinese [stood] firm, he flinched. So, by and large, it’s been a policy of appeasement, and this has not served American interests well.”

The next U.S. president will face an emboldened China, a North Korea on the fast track to possessing a functional, long-range nuclear arsenal, an environment potentially less conducive to American involvement in regional trade, and the breakdown of an alliance structure that has been a cornerstone for regional peace, security, and stability in the Asia-Pacific region since the conclusion of the Second World War.

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