Monday, April 21, 2014

What Are Experts Saying About President Obama's Trip to Asia?

This article first appeared on The Epoch Times    

     This week, President Obama will embark on a much anticipated trip to Asia.  So far, the administration's "pivot to Asia" strategy has been neglected due to several factors.  The president even had to cancel his last trip in the fall because the federal government was shutdown.  What are the expectations and items to be discussed during the president's upcoming trip?
     Last Friday, experts on this subject gathered at the Brookings Institution in Washington, DC to discuss the president's trip to Asia and how other global events may affect the administration's policy.  A commonality among the panelists was that the term "pivot" is misleading and was only used as a "jazzier" term to describe a shift or "rebalance" in the administration's policy.  According to Kenneth Lieberthal, Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institution, the original term for the policy was supposed to be "rebalance" to Asia and some in the inner circle believed "pivot" actually sounded better from a strategic standpoint.  A third term that was used to describe the policy initiative, and one Mr. Lieberthal believes should have been the official term, was "reinvigorate" because as Lieberthal stated, "we never left Asia."

     The second issue most panelists agreed on was resources.  The administration's pivot requires the reallocation of resources to Asia, which right now, is not there.  Michael O'Hanlon, Director of Research for foreign policy at the Brookings Institution, pointed out that in tangible terms, there has not been much of a rebalance to Asia thus far.  The positive take-away from this seemingly negative realization is that the progress that was previously made should not be difficult to gain back given there was little tangible resources and efforts allocated to the pivot or rebalance in the first place.  Additionally, O'Hanlon noted that the United States has only allocated around $10 billion to the rebalance to Asia, which included ships to the pacific.  As O'Hanlon previously asserted, this is not a real tangible effort given the $600 billion plus the US spends on military and the ships sent to the pacific can quickly be diverted to the Gulf if need be.

     Third, the dysfunction in Washington has been a thorn in the side of the administration in dealing with Asian nations.  Pending negotiations surrounding the Trans-Pacific Partnership or TPP, a free trade agreement being negotiated between several countries, may jeopardize standing in the region coupled with the volatility in Congress, the government shutdown (which threatened global economic security) and sequestration.  The administration sees TPP as a major policy initiative and yet, has received harsh push-back from loyal Democrats such as House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi.   

     Lastly, and arguably most important, the panel discussed the necessity for Chinese integration in constructive discussions and how China is essential to the rebalancing effort.  Lieberthal mentioned how the United States cannot place a "bull's-eye" on China.  The US and China have been competing for the last several years for global economic dominance and many experts believe between 2020 and 2040, China will overtake the United States as the world's largest economy.  Although some indicate China's currency manipulation, poor healthcare system, and one child policy may negatively affect their future GDP growth and has not been factored into numbers previously noted, the United States has only seen marginal growth in GDP recently (between two and three percent) and a new Congressional Budget Office report projects President Obama will add $6.6 trillion in the next ten years.  As the panel discussed, targeting or putting a "bulls-eye" on China will divide the region and force nations to choose between China and the United States.  Jonathan Pollack, Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institution, stated he would like to see more multi-lateral discussions in the region because as he mentioned, "we are stuck in bi-lateral talks with too many nations," and would like to establish fuller strategic conversations.

     Two major culprits contributing to a neglectful pivot to Asia strategy are changes in executive branch personnel and global events.  Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton announced the pivot to Asia strategy while she was still in office and tried to spearhead the initiative.  Additionally, National Security Adviser Tom Donilon (a close Clinton family confidante), who has now been replaced by Susan Rice (known for her interventionism and humanitarianism policies) was also a major player in the administration's first term policy plan.  In fact, Donilon recently stated in an interview that TPP is an essential piece to the economic rebalancing strategy and also voices his strong support for trade promotion authority or what is also known as fast track authority, a highly unpopular piece to the overall trade agreement that has been subject to relentless criticism from interest groups and both parties of Congress thought to give too much power and authority to the president.

     World events have also had to force the president to divert effort and resources from Asia.  The president has tried to shift away from the Middle East, but ongoing peace talks between Israel and Palestine, fronted by Secretary of State John Kerry, and continued turmoil in Syria have required more strict attention.  There is also the issue of Iraq and Afghanistan whose nations are facing important elections - not to mention the US troop withdrawal from Afghanistan.  China could be seen as an ally in Afghanistan as they do not want to see the nation fall back into the hands of terrorists and greedy tribal leaders creating a safe haven for jihad.  Ankit Panda of The Diplomat reported, "For China, the possibility of Afghanistan turning into a permanent place of refuge for insurgents and terrorists that would eventually foment unrest in Xinjiang [western region of China] is anathema."

     President Obama's trip is an important step in continued Asian relations and many are optimistic about the talks.  While there are still several issues to address, President Obama is adamant in reassuring the Asian nations that they are a priority for the United States, which when paired with everything from Russia to Ukraine to Syria occurring simultaneously, should bear some validation for Asian leaders.         

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