U.S. Loses Its focus on Asia

Story Stream
recent articles

When US President Barack Obama was re-elected in November, the Gillard government, like most governments in Asia, was very happy. With the exception of Beijing and one or two others, most Asian governments liked everything about Obama's "pivot" to Asia.

But, given the pattern of Obama's new cabinet appointments, there is an emerging, serious concern throughout Asia that the second Obama administration will be much less focused on Asia than the first was.

From Asia's point of view, Hillary Clinton was an outstanding secretary of state. Overall, though her performance was entirely creditable around the world, outside Asia she had less influence than it seemed. Obama tightly centralised all big foreign policy decisions in the White House. There was often a great deal of policy tension between Clinton's State Department and Obama's White House.

Clinton's biggest single policy legacy was the "pivot" to Asia. Obama's new appointments, John Kerry as Secretary of State, and Chuck Hagel as Secretary of Defence, conspicuously lack her commitment to Asia.

Mike Green, a former Asia director at the US National Security Council, told me this week: "John Kerry understands diplomacy. But will he approach Asia with a sufficient balance of power approach, and how much will he care about Asia? It's incumbent on Kerry to reassure Asia."

Obama's pivot evolved slowly. He and his team came to office knowing they wanted to devote more attention to Asia. They also wanted to get out of Iraq and Afghanistan and do something other than war. Asia was perfect.

But Obama had a bad first year in Asia, especially with China. In 2009 China policy was dominated by Jeff Bader at the NSC and Jim Steinberg, the deputy secretary of state. They are both fine men but they had only one approach to China - engage, forgive, encourage. They lacked the necessary other half of a good China policy, which involves balancing, hedging and helping US allies resist Chinese intimidation.

For the Obama visit to Beijing in 2009, Bader was the key author of the joint text that involved asking China to play a role in South Asia and an excessive recognition of China's "core interests". Asia saw this as Obama swinging way too much to Beijing.

And Obama got nothing for it. In 2010 Beijing started to behave aggressively against most of its neighbours, provoking territorial and other squabbles with Japan, India and numerous Southeast Asian nations, especially Vietnam and The Philippines.

Bader and Steinberg left the administration and the balance of influence in Obama's Asia policy switched to Clinton and the Assistant Secretary of State for East Asia, Kurt Campbell.

Campbell is by far the most influential and important assistant secretary in the post-Cold War period. Like Clinton, he is a hard-headed realist. When Chinese leader Hu Jintao came to Washington in 2011, Campbell negotiated the joint text. This was a perfect illustration of Obama's more tough-minded approach. But State didn't always prevail. It wanted to do more for The Philippines and was stopped by the White House.

The pivot is extremely important policy, even if Obama's team slightly oversold it. George W. Bush had run effective policy towards China, Japan and India. Where he had not done as well was in Southeast Asia. Early on, the Obama administration saw that Southeast Asia would be a key locus of the geo-strategic rivalry between Washington and Beijing. This rivalry, though inevitable, is perfectly consistent with deep engagement and co-operation between Washington and Beijing. After Beijing's year of aggression in 2010, Southeast Asian nations were crying out for more assistance from the US. Kevin Rudd, first as prime minister, then as foreign minister, was an important influence in making sure the Americans paid Southeast Asia proper attention.

Clinton, Campbell and then Obama himself were exemplary in their pattern of travel to Asia. In Asia Woody Allen's insight is intensely true: 90 per cent of success is just showing up. But for all the Obama administration's talk of the pivot to Asia, its Asia team, beyond Clinton and Campbell, is very thin.

Who will be the Asia champions in the second Obama administration? Kerry, though he served in Vietnam in the military, is the son of diplomats and spent a portion of his childhood in Germany. He seems a classic Atlanticist - a modern Dean Acheson. Beyond an interest in reconciliation with Vietnam, he has no signature Asia issues. Those close to him say he is susceptible to the European argument that Europeans had their feelings hurt by Obama's Asia pivot.

There are indications Kerry will make the Middle East peace process his priority. Previous secretaries of state who have done that, such as Bill Clinton's Warren Christopher and James Baker, who served under Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush, were drawn away from Asia as a result, with Christopher especially almost criminally negligent in his attention.

The Hagel appointment seems to be less about projecting US influence than managing inevitable defence budget cuts.

Tom Donilon, the National Security Adviser, has little direct experience of Asia and is a super-dove on China. Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, is an army man, whereas the Pacific is a navy and air force theatre. John Brennan, the new CIA chief, has a counter-terrorism background not intimately related to East Asia.

Clinton, and Obama's first two defence secretaries, Robert Gates and Leon Panetta, were the very embodiment of tough-minded realists, with a deep knowledge of Asia. Kerry is loquacious, but how hard-headed is he, and how much does he care about Asia?

One critical indicator will be who he appoints as assistant secretary of state for East Asia. This position has been occupied by some of the most important figures in American diplomacy. Though an assistant secretary is notionally several rungs down the power ladder, this position is the key face of US diplomacy in Asia and often Washington's main strategic thinker about Asia. Campbell was so effective because of his deep knowledge of Asia, larger-than-life personality, endless energy, diamond-hard mind, sense of strategic realities (he had previously served in the Pentagon) and closeness to Clinton.

The last time the position was filled by someone without a strong Asian background was when Christopher Hill was assistant secretary in the second Bush administration. Hill came from working on the Balkans and brought some of his Balkans team with him. But you just cannot work effectively in Asia without deep knowledge, a vast network of contacts and wide experience. Hill, though an able man and always good to Australia, was hopeless.

There are reports Kerry asked Campbell to stay on, but this seems to have been an offer only for a short extension. In any event, Campbell is leaving. Asia's enormous opportunities, and its enormous dangers (viz China-Japan hostility now playing out) will compel US attention. Does the new Obama administration have the personnel, and the commitment, to rise to the challenge?

Greg Sheridan is the Foreign Editor of the Australian.
Show commentsHide Comments

Related Articles