The Legacy Obama Leaves His Successor in Asia
Since its articulation in 2011, the ‘rebalance’ or ‘pivot’ to the Indo–Pacific has encountered substantial skepticism from some quarters. To some observers, the pivot is doomed. Such analysts tend to overlook the gains the pivot has achieved; underestimate how it prepares the United States to deal with the major remaining challenges the region faces; and oversell the implications of the delay or abandonment of the proposed Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) agreement. By contrast, I will argue that the pivot is not doomed and is in fact alive and well: it was and remains the right policy for the United States; has already achieved substantial results; is assisting the United States in getting through a difficult period in relations with two key allies who are undergoing substantial domestic turmoil; and is a long-term policy that should continue to unfold over several years to come, with potential additional gains remaining to be captured in the out years.
The importance of the Indo-Pacific – home to five U.S. treaty allies; numerous democracies and important trade and investment partners; four nuclear weapons states (India, China, Russia and North Korea; five if one includes Pakistan), and a substantial portion of the world’s economic activity and anticipated future economic growth – is undeniable. This is especially true as the European Union confronts potential disintegration and economic stagnation, and with the Middle East in deep turmoil. And it is also true that the Indo-Pacific is the source of substantial security threats to the United States, most notably in the forms of North Korean nuclear weapons development and brinkmanship, and Chinese coercion and challenges to regional order. Prior to 2009, the perception was taking root that the United States had turned its attention away from the region for good and was prepared to cede it to Chinese influence. This was, in part, the motivation for the pivot.
To strengthen U.S. influence, counter these negative trends, and reinforce positive regional cooperation in support of the liberal, rule of law international order, the Obama administration pursued the pivot, a whole of government policy that has already achieved numerous gains for the United States. Among these are:
- the tightening of U.S.-Japan and U.S.-South Korea relations (both at all-time best levels);
- the revision of the U.S.-Japan defense guidelines, expanding cooperation geographically as well as into outer space and cyberspace while establishing a standing Alliance Coordination Mechanism and a Bilateral Planning Mechanism;
- the agreement by South Korea to permit the emplacement of a Terminal High Altitude Area Defense battery on peninsula to protect U.S. Forces Korea;
- increases in contributions to support forward deployed U.S. forces in both Japan and South Korea;
- increased defense spending by U.S. allies, including substantial procurement of U.S. defense hardware that increases interoperability, enhances deterrence, and thereby lowers the probability of conflict as well as the per unit cost of U.S. defense platforms;
- the expansion of U.S. access rights to military installations in Darwin, (Australia), five sites in the Philippines (under the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement), and Singapore;
- increased bi-, tri-, and multi-lateral defense cooperation, including training and exercises as well as collaboration on building partner capacity;
- deepening political-diplomatic and military cooperation with new potentially strategically relevant partners such as India, Indonesia, Malaysia and Vietnam;
- improved military ties with New Zealand, allowing the Kiwis to engage with the United States on a deeper level than in the past three decades;
- support for regional political liberalization, most notably in Myanmar which has transitioned away from junta rule towards democratic governance;
- greater inclusion in the key multilateral bodies of the Indo-Pacific, including membership in the East Asian Summit, made possible by the signing of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations’ (ASEAN) Treaty of Amity and Cooperation and further facilitated by the appointment of an ambassador to ASEAN; and
- as a consequence of the investment of attention and respect in regional institutions, a greater willingness of countries in Southeast Asia to stand together (even if China is still able to buy off or twist Cambodia’s arm) in support of the rules-based international order and respect for international law.
These gains are largely if not completely irreversible and, as I have argued elsewhere, have in many cases entered into the standard bureaucratic planning and operations of many U.S. agencies as well as the baseline assumptions about the region’s organization held by many of its most important actors. They do not, however, address the totality of challenges to U.S. interests, values, and allies that are present in the region.
There are three major challenges for the next administration that the pivot has helped lay the groundwork for addressing, but has not (and was not designed to nor could it reasonably be expected to have) resolved, and one challenge that it was designed to address but has yet to achieve: