The Buzz

Asia: Obama Isn't Listening

As events continue to unfold surrounding China’s declaration of an Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ), Vice President Joe Biden began his visit to Asia this week in Japan where he condemned China’s actions as “increase[ing] the risk of accidents and miscalculation.” His visit during these tense times in Northeast Asia demonstrates the United States’ vested interests in maintaining stability in the Asia-Pacific region. Yet the White House isn't making it clear it fully appreciates those interests.

This was on display on November 20, when White House national-security adviser Susan Rice outlined the future of U.S. policy toward the Asia-Pacific during a speech at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C. Ambassador Rice gave a comprehensive overview of current and future areas of cooperation between the United States and Asian countries in a variety of areas, from security to economic prosperity to ensuring human dignity. However, concerns remain that the United States a) is not committed to the region in light of ongoing crises in the Middle East and b) does not reliably to commit to foreign policy objectives in light of the recent government shutdown. Ambassador Rice failed to address either of these issues outright, calling the pivot’s viability into question by the very countries the Administration is trying to reassure.

Ambassador Rice reiterated the commitment that the Obama administration has toward the Asia-Pacific region, which remains a “cornerstone” of American foreign policy regardless of other “hotspots” that will emerge, stating that “nowhere are the challenges and the opportunities we face so great as in the Asia-Pacific region.” Expressing the administration’s disappointment that President Obama was unable to visit during the government shutdown in October, Ambassador Rice announced that the President will visit Asia in April “to continue strengthening our ties across the region.”

Ambassador Rice devoted the bulk of her speech to the security dimension of the rebalance. By 2020, 60 percent of the U.S. Navy fleet will be based in the Asia-Pacific, where it will continue to provide humanitarian assistance as well as deterrence against conventional and non-conventional threats. The United States is diversifying its alliances and strategic partnerships as well as encouraging those countries to cooperate more amongst themselves. Addressing the ongoing territorial disputes, she emphasized the need for a code of conduct on the South China Sea that would be a “harbinger of their ability to shape their shared security future.” Each of these statements were supposed to allay our allies' fears.

Thus far, the United States has had a mixed record of making good on these commitments. Its greatest recent triumph has been its rapid and comprehensive response to the natural disaster in the Philippines; to date, the United States has sent fifty ships and aircraft to the region for a humanitarian and disaster relief operation. Such commitment will not only strengthen ties between the two countries but also help reinforce the United States’ security framework in the region should military cooperation with the Philippines increase in the future.

Maintaining stability for the future is also on the administration’s agenda, with Vice President Biden meeting with leaders in Japan, China and South Korea to address the ongoing tensions in the East China Sea. In addition to joining in solidarity with Japan and condemning China’s ADIZ, Biden also met with Chinese president Xi Jinping to ease tensions in the meeting. During a meeting that took place today, Biden described the U.S.-China relationship as “hugely consequential” to affecting the course of world events. This timely and multifaceted approach to addressing tensions in the Asia-Pacific demonstrates that the United States remains concerned about the region and believes that it has a part to play in making sure its allies and partners can resolve this issue peacefully.

But the United States should not only use reactive events such as natural disasters or stability concerns to demonstrate its commitment to the region. There remain concerns that the United States will continue to remain more committed militarily to the Middle East rather than to mitigating threats posed by North Korea or the territorial disputes. Along with this “strategic neglect,” many countries see the planned U.S. defense budget cuts over the next five years as hindering any planned commitments the United States has made. When coupled with the recent government shutdown, there is pessimism in the region that the United States, in addition to having less passion for the region, is actually incapable of commitment given its inability to keep its own government running.