The Legacy Obama Leaves His Successor in Asia

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:

  • North Korea’s nuclear ambitions (including both its development of weapons and associated delivery vehicles) and its willingness to engage in highly provocative asymmetric or conventional attacks on South Korea (and potentially other countries);
  • China’s aggressive moves employing threats and coercion to reshape the regional economic, legal, and geo-strategic order to suit its interests, including its attempt to change the status of the South China Sea through the construction of artificial islands equipped with military installations in the Spratly Island chain, efforts to ignore or de-legitimate the Permanent Court of Arbitration’s ruling on the 9-dash line, and gray zone coercion aimed at forcing Japan to open negotiations over the status of the Senkakus;
  • the substantial erosion in U.S. relations with Thailand and the Philippines stemming from internal political developments in Bangkok and Manila; and
  • the restructuring and harmonization of the rules governing regional trading relations and economic interactions, characterized first and foremost by the TPP agreement.

The pivot laid the groundwork for a more aggressive effort to challenge North Korea and impose costs on it for its actions by tightening defense cooperation with South Korea and Japan as well as by moving forward U.S. assets and encouraging greater intelligence-sharing between Seoul and Tokyo. Washington has also won support for the condemnation of North Korean human rights abuses at the UN, imposed substantial new sanctions on Pyongyang, and won some acquiescence and support for punishing North Korean provocations and violations of UN Security Council resolutions from China and Russia. The next administration will have to build on this by assessing how far to go in imposing secondary sanctions on Chinese organizations that violate the sanctions regime. 

The pivot also enabled the United States to manage tensions with China and achieve some notable positive outcomes despite Beijing’s many highly provocative actions abroad and a rapid turn towards deeper authoritarianism domestically. In addition to avoiding armed conflict, the U.S. approach to China under the pivot has enabled some cooperation on stabilizing and deepening military-to-military ties and enhancing the safety of U.S. military personnel operating in proximity to Chinese forces; reducing cyber-enabled industrial espionage; coordinating on steps to address global climate change and reduce the fallout from the global financial crisis; and produced some diplomatic cooperation on confronting North Korea, Iran, and the Islamic State. Additionally, as a consequence of credible signaling of Washington’s support for positive cross-Strait ties, the United States was able to sell Taiwan record amounts of defense hardware, assisting Taipei in modernizing its armed forces without leading to a break in U.S.–China relations. Washington’s growing ties with regional actors have also enabled it to marshal some diplomatic support for condemning Chinese actions, while a more geographically distributed and operationally resilient U.S. force posture and tighter defense cooperation with key partners bolsters the U.S. ability to resist any efforts to target U.S. forces or compel them to leave the region.

Additionally, the pivot better prepared the United States for the turbulence it has encountered in relations with Thailand and the Philippines in recent years. In the summer of 2014 the Thai military launched a coup that toppled Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra from power after weeks of opposition-led street protests that had brought Bangkok to the brink of civil unrest. Though U.S.-Thai relations have suffered substantial cooling in the wake of the junta’s seizure of power, the Obama administration has been careful to preserve the alliance and play the long game for when the military finally returns to barracks and the country is handed back to civilian rule. Similarly, with the advent of the Rodrigo Duterte administration in Manila, the alliance between the United States and the Philippines appears to be in substantial turmoil as a consequence of the Filipino president’s view of the United States. The prospect of a complete break in Washington-Manila relations is reduced, however, because the Filipino people are overwhelmingly pro-US, partly as a consequence of efforts by the Obama administration to strengthen ties and support the Filipino filing at the Permanent Court of Arbitration. Like with Thailand, the pivot may help the United States get through a tumultuous period driven by a set of developments in the internal politics of the Philippines, hopefully preserving the warm relations between the two countries despite the particular peculiarities of the Duterte administration.