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Obama’s Uncertain Legacy to the Asia-Pacific Region

Obama's Uncertain Legacy to the Asia-Pacific Region

The results of the US presidential election are expected to mark a substantial shift in American foreign policy in the Asia-Pacific region. Since 2011, President Obama has inaugurated a critical recalibration phase of Washington’s primary interest over the region, considered as the natural epicenter of American economic, diplomatic and strategic interest.

The “rebalance to Asia” strategy is one of the most distinctive hallmark of the Obama administration, marked by the determination and the commitment of Washington to reaffirm its role in the region over the years.

Echoing his historic speech to the Australian Parliament, President Obama has renewed American engagement in the region during his state visit to Laos to attend the U.S-ASEAN Summit. Back in 2012, the beginning of the America’s Pacific Century was saluted by former Secretary of State Clinton as the most critical opportunity to ensure the peace and prosperity.

During this time the American political elites have faced a wide range of challenges that have prevented the Obama administration to fully achieve the pursuit of a new form of Manifest Destiny in the region.           The new direction represented by the Rebalance to Asia strategy, has embodied a marked shift in the U.S. foreign policy, becoming a critical tool to establish a solid baseline for deepening the level of economic, political and military cooperation with critical regional actors and allies

This has been featured through the establishment of a very comprehensive agenda that encompasses the following priorities:

  1. the protection and the expansion of the free flow of the trade and commerce;
  2. the  promotion of economic integration and liberalization in the region;
  3.  the strengthening of Washington’s critical strategic cooperation with allies and new partners  based on safe and secure lines of communication(SLOCs);
  4. and the increase of the stability in the region in response to the emergence of non-traditional threats, undermining the regional security architecture.

Obama’s Asia-Pacific great strategy has indeed been characterized by an audacious attempt to foster a new phase of positive relations with China during a time in which the daunting shadow of Beijing’s presence, rising as a hegemonic and revisionist power has posed a serious challenge to the fragile regional balance.

China’s aggressive military posture and willingness to defend its strategic interest has originated countless deadlocks with Japan, Taiwan and a large number of ASEAN nations, diffident about the real nature of China’s peaceful rise.

Through these eight years, Beijing has remained a formidable challenger of Washington’s determination to design the contours of regional order based on the freedom of navigation and overflight and the respect of international law.

Chinese political elites have perceived the launching of Rebalance to Asia strategy as a clear attempt to contain and or even undermine their rightful leading role and core interest the in the region. More relevant, China’s statecraft tradition and Confucian political vision do not recognize the universality of western values considered as the most fundamental pillars of Washington-oriented international order.

In the last two decades China has strived to frame a new and comprehensive political, economic and strategy vision able to project its role and interest in the global scenario.

Chinese political elites have increasingly pushed forward an alternative narrative of regional and international order that has emerged alongside Beijing’s maritime expansion in the South China Sea or with the establishment of the alternative to western-oriented trans-regional financial and infrastructural institutions and initiatives such as the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank and the One Belt and One Road.

While China and the U.S. have welcomed a new proactive engagement based on the framework of a new type of Great Power relations, characterized by reciprocal respect and recognition of national interest, the perspective of a phase of distension in the China-US relations remain uncertain.

Beijing’s remains wary of Washington’s presence in the Asia-Pacific, de facto pursuing a strategy aiming to overshadow the fulfillment of the Great Rejuvenation of the Chinese Nation.

In addition, China’s restless desire to pursue a more dynamic role in the region through the expansion and the modernization of its military and power projections capabilities is the direct consequence of Beijing’s priority to protect its national maritime interest in East China and South China Sea and still represent the most enduring source of confrontation with Washington and a large number of Pacific nations.

Despite the increasing number of challenges to regional balance, China’s emergence as a great power has represented the most critical element of recalibration of Washington’s foreign policy in the region.

Beijing’s maritime assertiveness has flamed tensions but it has also provided a valuable opportunity for the Obama administration to establish the dialogue and the basis for forthcoming strategic cooperation with regional partners such as India, Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore Taiwan, Vietnam and also the Philippines, recently shifted from Washington’s to Beijing’s orbit.

The United States have managed to foster the consolidation of security cooperation with Japan through the revision of the U.S.-Japan Defense guidelines that have notably improved the strategic contribution of Tokyo alongside its historical ally. Washington and Tokyo have established a new and critical Alliance Coordination Mechanism and Bilateral Planning Mechanism to better respond to the emergence of a wide range of threats.

The Obama administration has put additional efforts to encourage a closer partnership between Japan and South Korea vis-à-vis the nuclear threat represented by the DPRK’s nuclear and ballistic ambitions. Washington’s has assisted Seoul in the deployment of the Terminal High Altitude Area Defence battery as the ultimate deterrent against Pyongyang, despite China’s opposition that considers THAAD as an attempt to undermine China’s strategic interest.

As regards the DPRK, Washington has relied on a “strategic patience” strategy, aiming to the resumption of the negotiations with Pyongyang while stressing the priority of the denuclearization of the Korean peninsula as a prior condition to any concession to Kim’s regime. The Obama administration has tried to foster a wider engagement of Beijing, considered as a critical actor in enforcing economic sanctions against the DPRK.

Despite Sino-North Korean relations have significantly cooled since Kim Jong-un rose to the leadership, Beijing’s opposition to any change in the status quo, including the collapse of the DPRK has convinced the CCP leadership that a full recalibration of North Korea’s policy could lead to an uncertain outcome.

Beijing’s marked level of dissatisfaction toward South Korea’s more assertive strategic initiatives such as the deployment of the THAAD has represented a daunting impasse in South Korea’s relations with China. Beijing’s limited results to curb North Korea’s restless military assertiveness has indeed affected Seoul’s decision to curtail the relations with China in favor of a broader strategic partnership with Washington.

Undoubtedly, the severe security environment constantly affected by Pyongyang’s missile and nuclear threats has provided the Obama administration with the opportunity not only to amend the ties between Japan and South Korea, particularly as regards the legacy of the Imperial Japan occupation of the Korean peninsula during the first half of the 20th century, but it has laid the foundation for a stronger strategic trilateral cooperation.

Despite the Obama administration’s efforts to design a new vision and engagement, able to reframe Washington’s role and interest in the Asia-Pacific region, limited results have been achieved. Beijing’s land reclamation, infrastructure building in the South China Sea and military presence in the East China Sea in defiance of the U.S. pledge to ensure the freedom of navigation continues to undermine Washington’s credibility with its allies.

Moreover, the Obama administration’s address to the United Nation to join the efforts to force North Korea to comply with the UN Security Council resolutions has produced no tangible results. Last September Pyongyang successfully completed its 4th nuclear test, escalating the chance of military confrontation in the Korean peninsula.

Nevertheless, the United States remains and will remain committed to the Asia Pacific region and the legacy of the Obama administration could represent the very starting point for a wider pivot, whose success mostly would depend on the willingness and ability of the new incoming administration to follow and implement the path already marked.



Daniele Ermito

Daniele Ermito holds a BA (Hons) in International Relations from the University of Bologna and a MSc in Asian Politics from the School of Oriental and African Studies. His areas of research include Northeast Asia security, the DPRK and Chinese foreign policy. He also writes for Global Risk Insights. You can follow him on Twitter @DanielRmito