U.S. Loses Its focus on Asia

By Greg Sheridan

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."

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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.

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Greg Sheridan is the Foreign Editor of the Australian.
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