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Washington’s painful search for a credible China policy

When Barack Obama assumed the presidency in 2008, China was already a major economic power. Obama understood the importance and potential of the Asia Pacific broadly, and China more specifically, and his main ambition was to create a more sustainable foundation for relations with Beijing. To do so, Obama aimed to channel China’s rise in as non-confrontational a direction as possible. To counter the ongoing power shift, more strategic attention and resources were devoted by Washington to the Asia Pacific, via the administration’s ‘Pivot’ to the region and the Trans-Pacific Partnership which excluded China. No consolidation was achieved. During the first two years of the presidency of Donald Trump, the relationship between China and the West has been predicated less on expectations of convergence, and more on rivalry and competition. China is building a party-state-driven economy based on its own distinctive vision for globalisation. The future increasingly appears one of systemic dissonance. Strategic distrust seems more likely to define an ever-more complex US–China relationship. At no time has the United States appeared to be in more urgent need of a comprehensive and viable China policy, beyond transactional improvisations and power projections.

in The United States in the Indo-Pacific
Obama, Trump and the Asia Pacific political economy

This chapter focuses on the transition from Presidents Obama to Trump, with emphasis on the political economy of the Asia Pacific. Throughout the post-war era, US foreign economic policies have been shaped significantly by broader geopolitical and security strategies. This is true for both Obama and Trump. For Obama, the pursuit of hegemony using more limited means dictated a regional shift to the Asia Pacific. His administration devised an economic strategy that complemented this geopolitical approach and simultaneously reaffirmed America’s traditional role as leader of a liberalising world economy. For Trump, the overall rejection of America’s hegemonic project has been accompanied by a departure from America’s traditional leadership role in the world economy in favour of a more nationalist and transactional approach to foreign economic relations. China, as both a geopolitical challenger and economic competitor, will likely emerge as the most prominent target in the Trump administration’s transformed strategy throughout the remainder of its time in office.

in The United States in the Indo-Pacific
Obama’s legacy in US China Policy

What is Barack Obama’s legacy in US China policy, and what effect has the first two years of the administration of Donald Trump had upon it? This chapter argues that circumstances conspired to undermine Obama’s China policy, and that the deterioration of US–China relations during his administration was largely beyond his control. Obama’s Pivot to Asia was unable to extract the United States from the wars in the Middle East he inherited from George W. Bush, and the rise of Chinese nationalism stymied his hopes of resetting US–China relations. Obama’s Pivot did, however, leave both the Trump administration and US allies in a position of relative strength in Asia. The chapter further argues that despite an ego-gratifying red carpet welcome in Beijing in 2017, bilateral relations further deteriorated during the first two years of the Trump administration. In early 2019 mutual trust is at new lows, talk of a ‘Thucydides Trap’ is increasing, and the spectre of another US–China conflict looms. Meanwhile, an ‘America First’ Trump has turned his back on Asia, rejecting the Trans-Pacific Partnership, launching a trade war against China, and undermining the regional position of the United States and its Asian allies.

in The United States in the Indo-Pacific
Open Access (free)
The United States in the Asia and Indo-Pacifics

What are President Obama’s chief legacies across Asia and the Pacific, the new fulcrum of world economics and geopolitics? Was there a distinctive underlying philosophy and strategy for the region which guided Obama’s thinking and policies, such as ‘pragmatic realism’, hegemonic ordering/liberal internationalism, or hawkish humanitarianism? Since Obama, what has President Donald Trump’s ‘principled realism’ meant in practice? How far has Trump progressed in challenging or disrupting Obama’s strategy to ‘pivot to Asia’? What differences can we discern in the declared or effective US strategy towards Asia and to what extent has it radically shifted or displaced Obama-era legacies? Finally, what might be the longer-term consequences, both for American power and the Asian region, of the strategies pursued by the Trump administration and its predecessors? Though we appear to be at a key historical moment, this is hardly the first time American elites have faced uncertainty over grand strategy in broad terms or in the context of specific areas of the world. Yet the stakes now seem higher, as the spectre of economic and military conflicts hangs over the Asia, and broader Indo-, Pacific regions.

in The United States in the Indo-Pacific
America and Trump in the Asia Pacific

The United States under Donald Trump has begun to chart a radically new course in Asia, a region that has long relied on America for stability and maintaining the balance of power. Trump has reversed, or sought to reverse, many of the long-standing policies and initiatives pursued by his predecessors, with potential long-term implications for the global balance of power. A multilateral and multifaceted engagement strategy in the region is being replaced by a transactional approach to security, trade and governance. This approach seeks to maximise gains while shifting risk to counterparties in a series of asymmetric transactions and deals which risk eroding a strategic leadership position decades in the making. Trump’s ‘America First’ agenda represents an abandonment of leadership in the setting of international norms for trade, investment and security, providing an opportunity for other countries to fill the vacuum being left behind. Long-term shifts in the political landscape which result will be difficult to predict, and their impact on trade, capital and financial flows cannot be planned for.

in The United States in the Indo-Pacific

This chapter argues that although the Obama administration was originally preoccupied with domestic economic challenges and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, ties between Washington and New Delhi improved by the end of Obama’s first year in office. The increasing links between New Delhi and Washington during this era are best explained by a mutual desire to hedge against the rise of China. However, other factors such as increasing economic ties also played a role in bringing the two states together. The trajectory of the relationship under the Trump administration is unlikely to depart significantly from that of his predecessor.

in The United States in the Indo-Pacific
Exception, not transformation

The decision to sign the ASEAN Treaty of Amity and Cooperation and join the ASEAN-led East Asia Summit was one of the first enacted pillars of the Obama administration’s Rebalance to Asia policy. These moves highlighted the focus of the Rebalance on Southeast Asia and its core institution, ASEAN. It was hoped in Washington that more participation in multilateral, ASEAN-led bodies would significantly advance the United States’ regional interests. Across the first two years of his time in office to early 2019, President Donald Trump has focused far less on Southeast Asia, and his White House has reverted to an approach which is identifiably more Republican in character within the context of Asia. His administration has concentrated more on unilateral and bilateral courses of action, and upon the major powers of Northeast Asia once more. The Obama administration’s focus on Southeast Asia and ASEAN-led regional multilateralism, exemplified by its participation within the East Asia Summit, was in the end exceptional rather than transformational, by failing to guarantee a long-lasting legacy.

in The United States in the Indo-Pacific
Open Access (free)
An endangered legacy

US relations with Japan under President Barack Obama can be divided into several phases. During the first phase (2009 to March 2011), and particularly during the tenure of former Japanese prime minister Yukio Hatoyama, the Obama administration had a difficult relationship with the DPJ-led government, which tried to promote more autonomy for Tokyo in the bilateral relationship. The Fukushima disaster and Operation Tomodachi helped to improve the atmosphere in the alliance. The return to power of Shinzo Abe in 2012 led to a new alignment of political priorities. Obama and Abe worked to consolidate the US–Japan alliance and promote negotiations for the Trans-Pacific Partnership. Moreover, they drove significant progress in historical reconciliation, as testified by Obama’s visit to Hiroshima and by Abe’s visit to Pearl Harbor, both in 2016. As of early 2019, this progress appears endangered by the policies promoted by the Trump administration which, despite attempts to reassure Tokyo, appears unpredictable in the realm of security and dangerously oriented towards protectionist trade policies.

in The United States in the Indo-Pacific

This chapter explores the maritime approaches of Presidents Obama and Trump in the Indo-Pacific region, against the backdrop of the continual rise of China’s modernising navy. It is argued that from 2009 Obama made the US Navy the linchpin in his Asia Pacific strategy, a policy choice to which Trump from 2017 added more marine machismo. More than a foreign policy shift, Obama’s ‘Pivot’ to Asia from around 2011 represented a fundamental reorientation of the US Navy from the Atlantic to the Pacific. This charting of a new course by American sea forces was not only aimed at revitalising US foreign policy, but also stemming its own decline. The chapter also asks if naval engagements in the South China Sea in particular, and a continued reliance on American sea power more broadly, is sufficient for Washington to protect its empire from challenges presented by continental China.

in The United States in the Indo-Pacific
Promises and perils

The Obama administration’s approach towards Asia included an increased focus on Southeast Asia, which it saw as important in its own right but also to the advancement of wider US interests in the region. Yet as this chapter argues, by the end of Obama’s time in office, his administration’s record in Southeast Asia appeared mixed. The Obama years saw some notable successes, including institutionalising greater attention to the region and investing more in multilateralism and people-to-people ties. However, it also exhibited serious limitations, such as difficulties in confronting the reality of China’s rise in Southeast Asia, crafting a comprehensive regional economic approach, and articulating a clear vision for dealing with growing democracy and human rights challenges. In its first two years, the administration of Donald Trump built upon some elements of Obama’s regional legacy within its ‘Free and Open Indo-Pacific’ strategy, while departing from it and undermining it in others.

in The United States in the Indo-Pacific