SETH ROGEN’S slapstick film The Interview highlighted the unstable temperament of North Korea’s Kim Jong-un. But the country’s “Dear Leader” (he could not even think of an original nickname, so he took his late father’s) is no joke. He continues to pursue his nuclear program, test his long-range missiles and maintain his country’s position as a leading, if not preeminent, nuclear proliferator. He blusters against South Korea, Japan and, of course, the United States. And the hack of Sony Pictures was probably not the first time that he had authorized a cyberattack on his perceived enemies. Simply put, the man and his clique embody the spark that could ignite another war on the Korean Peninsula, one that could drag in an unwilling China and the United States.
Despite Obama’s best efforts to develop a Korean strategy jointly with Xi Jinping, the Chinese leader has not committed to anything more than China’s long-standing claim that it does try to influence Pyongyang, though to little avail. China needs to do more—it is North Korea’s economic lifeline—and Obama must press Beijing more openly than before. China does not respond well to public pressure, but it does respond, and the leadership in Beijing is well aware of the danger that North Korea poses to all its neighbors.
Complicating Beijing’s policy toward Pyongyang is its perception that Washington is encouraging Japan to take a more aggressive stance toward China. Chinese officials certainly miss no opportunity to complain about Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. Nevertheless, they often go on to assert that he would not be presiding over a more expansive Japanese national-security policy—including participation in more multilateral exercises, supporting Japanese arms sales and visiting the shrine at Yasukuni, where a number of Japanese war criminals are memorialized—without American encouragement.
In fact, with Washington also allied to South Korea, maintaining a close relationship with Mongolia and moving closer to India, Beijing seems convinced that it is being encircled by the United States. Obama’s challenge will be to somehow convince Xi that this is not the case, and that it is as much in China’s interest as in that of the United States to contain North Korea and bring about a settlement on the peninsula. The going will be rough, but if Obama wants to bequeath a serious foreign-policy legacy to his successor, Northeast Asia offers him a real opportunity to do so.
EVEN AS Obama was authorizing the withdrawal of forces not only from Iraq and Afghanistan but also from Europe, his administration was trumpeting its “pivot” (or as it now prefers to call it, its “rebalancing”) to Asia, arguing that America ought to focus its military, economic and diplomatic resources on the world’s most dynamic region. But the pivot has thus far amounted to little more than high-flown rhetoric. That is particularly true in the military sphere. There have been few new deployments to Asia. What has happened is that fewer forces have been drawn down there relative to those returning from Europe and the Middle East.
The forces that have been newly deployed to the region have not amounted to much. 2,500 Marines are to be rotated through Darwin, Australia, thousands of miles away from the South China Sea, the locus of friction between China and some of its neighbors. Four relatively small Littoral Combat Ships (LCS) will be on constant rotation through Singapore, effectively homeported there. Yet the first to arrive there, Freedom, developed electrical problems soon after reaching the island state and encountered numerous other setbacks during its deployment. It did not exactly make a great impression on its new hosts. While the navy expects to encounter fewer glitches on the Fort Worth, which arrived in Singapore in December 2014, it has no sense of what will be the fate of the other two LCS ships soon to deploy there, since they have a completely different hull design. All told, while these deployments represent some degree of American commitment to the region, they hardly constitute a major pivot.
Obama also has made much of his years living in Indonesia, and has trumpeted his desire to solidify relations between the two countries. To that end, in 2010, he and his Indonesian counterpart, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, announced a new “comprehensive strategic partnership,” encompassing trade, investment and military cooperation. While some progress has been achieved since then, here, too, more has been promised than has been delivered.
As for security relations, the major breakthrough that ended the long-standing American ban on training Indonesian forces took place under the George W. Bush administration. Current military cooperation focuses primarily on humanitarian assistance and disaster relief. Despite Obama’s pronouncements, it is Indonesia that seeks a more comprehensive military relationship. Indeed, in December 2014, General Moeldoko, the commander of Indonesia’s armed forces, even offered to work with the United States in the fight against the Islamic State. There was no immediate response from Washington.
U.S. relations with Vietnam bear several similarities to those between Washington and Jakarta. In 2013, Obama and Vietnamese president Truong Tan Sang initiated a “comprehensive partnership” that addressed trade, investment and security relations. In May 2014, the two countries signed a bilateral nuclear-energy agreement, under which the United States could export material and equipment to Vietnam.
Yet in other respects cooperation has fallen short of expectations. For example, in economic relations, it is Hanoi and the private sector that have taken the lead, with Vietnam’s favorable tax and other incentives driving new investment. The Obama administration has not worked with Congress to ease restrictions on imports from Vietnam, and it has continued to designate Vietnam as a nonmarket economy, which renders it vulnerable to antidumping rulings.
Similarly, military-to-military cooperation has increased rather slowly since the Bush administration included Vietnam in the International Military Education and Training program. U.S. forces have engaged their Vietnamese counterparts in joint noncombat training and exercises, such as for search and rescue. More generally, however, the pace of cooperation has been rather slow, in part because the United States continues to prohibit sales of lethal weapons to Vietnam.
Obama is right to focus on Asia; his error has been to rely on rhetoric rather than real capability, which does nothing to reassure allies, much less send a clear message to potential adversaries. He needs to do more. The administration has made much of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the keystone trade agreement for the region. But Obama, clearly sensitive to union concerns, has not expended much personal capital in convincing Congress to approve it.
As for the military sphere, he needs to add to the American presence in the region, not merely maintain it at current levels. Nor should he increase force levels in Asia at the expense of America’s presence in other parts of the world. He can only do what is necessary, however, if he takes seriously the warnings from all three of his secretaries of defense that the defense budget must be exempted from the sequester that is part of the 2011 Budget Control Act, which has forced significant reductions in spending on military operations and acquisition. Thus far, the president has shown no inclination to do so, and until he does, his pivot to Asia will not amount to much.
EVER SINCE his first year in office, President Obama has managed to offend many of America’s closest allies. He annoyed the British at the outset of his first term when he returned a bust of Churchill that had been on display in the Oval Office. He upset the Poles with his sudden decision in September 2009 to cancel the “third site” for a missile-defense system in Central Europe; the interceptors would have been based in Poland. He has frustrated the Canadians for more than three years by refusing to approve the Keystone XL pipeline. He deeply offended Tony Abbott in November 2014 by highlighting the need for action on climate change in a speech in Brisbane at the very time that the Australian prime minister was seeking to keep the subject off the agenda of the G-20 summit, which Abbott was hosting.
The German government reacted with outrage to Edward Snowden’s allegations that the NSA was monitoring its cell-phone calls, including those of Chancellor Angela Merkel. Brazilians likewise were angered by Snowden’s disclosures, leading President Dilma Rousseff in September 2013 to postpone her planned state visit to the United States. Obama seemed content to let the issue fester. Rousseff has finally rescheduled her visit, but, as with Merkel, Obama has offered Rousseff neither a personal apology nor an explanation for more than a year.
Nontreaty allies have also been put off by the president’s willingness to reach out to adversaries, seemingly at their expense. As already noted, the Saudis and the Israelis do not trust his approach to Iran. Neither do the Emiratis, who in many respects are America’s closest and most consistent Arabian Gulf allies. Meanwhile, the Moroccans have been offended by the Obama administration’s reluctance to continue the Bush policy of supporting autonomy for the western Sahara within a unified Morocco.