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Obama’s Asia Pivot Has Been a Historic Success

Jewel Samad/Getty Images

In 2011, at the annual East Asia Summit dinner in Bali, Indonesia, R&B icon Quincy Jones surprised everyone by appearing on stage and asking President Barack Obama and Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao to join him in singing “We Are the World.” An impromptu invitation for the leaders of the United States and China to sing in front of a gathering of world leaders is just the sort of unscripted event that makes presidential aides freeze in their seats, minds racing with embarrassing headlines and videos gone viral.

Needless to say, Obama and Wen did not join Jones on stage. But the event reflected a nervousness that’s widely shared across Asia—is China a friend or foe? And most of the time, this anxiety cannot be laughed off. 

China and the ripple effects of its rise have been at the center of what the Obama administration has dubbed its “rebalance” to Asia—what is commonly referred to as a “pivot” in the press.  After years focused on terrorism, wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the 2008 financial crisis, the Obama administration entered office at a time when there was a strong perception that U.S. influence in Asia was waning. Filling the perceived vacuum was a newly assertive China, seemingly determined to upend the regional order. As Daniel Russel, assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific Affairs, told me, the administration needed to “re-establish our centrality in the life of the region.”

Managing this has not been easy. Pulled away by crisis after crisis, it sometimes seemed as if Obama’s rebalance could not catch a break. In March 2010, Obama postponed a trip to Asia to make the final push for the Affordable Care Act. That June, he canceled the same trip to Australia and Indonesia to manage the response to the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. In October 2013, when congressional Republicans shut down the government, Obama was forced to send Secretary of State John Kerry in his stead to summits in Indonesia and Brunei. 

Even when the president is in Asia, events elsewhere often dominate the headlines. A November 2012 trip was overshadowed by the war between Israel and Gaza. In November 2015 another trip’s headlines were dominated by the aftermath of the terrorist attack in Paris.

To some, the rebalance remains an unfulfilled foreign policy goal. And to be sure, the White House has had to simultaneously manage a myriad of international crises, from multiple wars to the collapse of the Middle East to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

But despite all the crises and challenges elsewhere, the Obama administration has established the groundwork for a fundamental shift in U.S. foreign policy in the coming decades. As Obama prepares for his final trip to Asia this week, he can say that his administration has done the steady, quiet diplomacy necessary to renew and strengthen America’s role in Asia to deal with the single most significant challenge the region—and perhaps the world—will face in the 21st century: the rise of China.    

The real work of diplomacy—establishing relationships, building trust, opening channels of communication between governments—does not often make the headlines. That’s why one of the more significant initiatives of the Asia rebalance may not sound all that earth-shattering: the decision in 2010 to join the East Asia Summit, a relatively new regional institution in Asia centered on the ten countries of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), and including other major players like India, China, and Japan.

When the EAS was born in 2005 the United States did not get an invitation, and there were concerns that it was in part an attempt by China, Malaysia, and others to exclude the United States from certain regional discussions. Mike Green, senior director for Asia on the National Security Council in the George W. Bush White House, told me that Bush had heard from other leaders that the EAS was “boring.” Furthermore, Bush didn’t want to commit his successor to attending a second annual summit in Asia (in addition to APEC, the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit, which does not include all ASEAN countries) until it was clear the forum would have traction. 

Similarly, when Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice was planning to skip the 2005 ASEAN Regional Forum (or ARF, another staple of the annual ASEAN circuit), Green admitted to her, “Look, you’re not missing the Treaty of Versailles. Not much of anything gets done.” But he insisted that in Asian diplomacy, to paraphrase Woody Allen, nine-tenths of life is showing up.

The Obama administration showed up, consistently, even when fires were raging elsewhere on the planet. In 2012, when fighting broke out between Israel and Gaza, both Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton attended the EAS in Cambodia. From Cambodia, the president sent Clinton to the Middle East to negotiate a ceasefire, which she successfully did. A global power needed to be able to walk and chew gum at the same time. 

But more importantly, the EAS and similar forums gave the U.S. venues to construct a flexible regional network capable of working with China, while also hedging against the possibility that China is seeking a hegemonic role in Asia.  

This process entailed the accumulation of strengthened partnerships, a bolstered U.S. military presence, and improved economic ties. Former Australian Ambassador to the United States Kim Beazley described this day-to-day focus of the rebalance to me as a “brick-building approach.”

Just how much progress has been made in building bricks can be seen in the partnership formed with Vietnam in the last few years.

Vietnam’s decision to join the Trans-Pacific Partnership—a trade agreement that would comprise the world’s largest free trade area and a top priority for the Obama administration—required tough political decisions like upholding labor rights, decisions made more appealing due to the political and economic ties TPP would create to the United States. To help get Vietnam over the finish line, in 2015 Obama hosted Nguyen Phu Trong, general secretary of the Communist Party of Vietnam, marking the first time that a general secretary—the same position held by Ho Chi Minh—made an official visit to the United States. And in May 2016, Obama overcame one of the last hurdles in U.S.-Vietnam relations when he lifted the lethal arms embargo.

Improvements in U.S. relationships are evident across Asia. In Myanmar, a political opening has melted away U.S. sanctions and a policy of isolation, now replaced by investment and aid. In Malaysia, a government previously unfriendly to the U.S. has become a critical security partner and a member of TPP. Treaty ally the Philippines, which kicked out U.S. troops in 1991, struck a new agreement to boost U.S. military access in the country. There’s a new agreement for U.S. troops to rotate through Australia. The U.S.-India partnership is much stronger, as evidenced by the issuance of a joint strategic vision for the region during Obama’s last trip to New Delhi in 2015 and Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s well-received speech to Congress in June. And the alliances with Japan and South Korea have been bolstered by governments in Tokyo and Seoul that increasingly see eye to eye with Washington on the strategic challenges ahead in Asia. 

The United States has repeatedly made clear that it welcomes China’s rise, and China could continue to benefit—as it has for more than 40 years—from a robust U.S. presence in Asia. But each strengthened bilateral relationship, new defense agreement, and multilateral initiative makes the choice for Beijing starker: China can work with the United States and others to uphold a peaceful and prosperous Asia, or China can try to contend with a U.S. role in Asia that is stronger than it has been in years and a region more capable of pushing back against China.

In a 2012 speech about U.S.-China relations, Secretary Clinton summed up the challenge that China presented: “We are now trying to find an answer, a new answer to the ancient question of what happens when an established power and a rising power meet. We need a new answer.”

We had a glimpse of the answer in April and May 2012, when China and the United States wrestled over the fate of Chen Guangcheng, a blind Chinese dissident who had escaped house arrest and found sanctuary in the U.S. embassy.  

Chinese officials viewed America helping Chen as an affront to China’s sovereignty, and demanded that he be turned over. The United States was not about to do that. With Clinton and Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner on their way to Beijing a week later for the annual Strategic and Economic Dialogue (S&ED), Chen’s stay at the embassy threatened to, at the very least, cloud the talks. At worst, it could have dealt a serious setback to the U.S.-China relationship. A dramatic saga ensued, with a deal for Chen to come to the United States only being achieved once Clinton had landed in Beijing and conducted negotiations over Chen while juggling the S&ED talks.

The balancing act displayed in this incident is now at the heart of U.S.-China relations, and at the heart of the rebalance. Both sides understand how important it is to keep tensions from reaching a breaking point, and to forge cooperation on vital issues like climate change, which has been one of the most visible successes of the rebalance. At the same time, both countries are trying to figure out how to manage a growing list of differences, from cyber-security to maritime disputes to trade. 

All of this makes other actors in Asia nervous. Diplomats in the region like to say, “When the elephants fight, the grass gets trampled.” But they also say, “When the elephants make love, the grass gets trampled.” Across Asia, countries don’t only fear a U.S.-China conflict; they also fear a “G-2” in which the U.S. and China would supposedly carve up Asia for themselves and leave everyone else hanging out to dry. 

North Korea is a perennial challenge that stands at the center of this balancing act, and illustrates its complexity. Just recently, in July, the United States and South Korea announced that they would deploy in South Korea a Terminal High-Altitude Area Defense System (THAAD), a sophisticated missile defense system, to deter a growing North Korean threat. China lashed out, castigating the U.S. for “severely” disrupting “regional strategic balance,” seeing only a threat in this evidence of closer diplomatic and military relations between Seoul and Washington. Beijing could not see that its lack of pressure on North Korea was in part to blame for the deployment of THAAD to defend against a growing North Korean threat.

The most combustible regional security challenges in Asia are the maritime disputes between China and its neighbors. In recent years, China has taken a series of provocative moves in the East and South China Seas to assert its claimed sovereignty over rocks and the waters surrounding them. Today, countries across Asia are deploying more vessels in disputed waters to defend their respective claims, building up military capabilities, and constructing fortified outposts. As a result the number of incidents at sea is rising. But the most credible deterrent is the presence of the United States. 

In response, the United States has placed the issue of maritime disputes front and center at forums like the EAS. It has forged a new agreement to rotate troops and assets at bases in the Philippines, made a commitment to station 60 percent of overseas-based U.S. Navy and Air Force forces in Asia by 2020, and is investing in maritime security capabilities for the countries of Southeast Asia.  

This, all while keeping the relationship with Beijing on an even keel, including by signing a Memorandum of Understanding with China on preventing and managing incidents in the air and at sea. 

Still, managing incidents may only get tougher as China continues to assert its authority at sea, as illustrated by a 2012 incident between China and the Philippines over Scarborough Shoal. After the Philippines sent ships to arrest Chinese fishermen, Chinese vessels pressured the Philippines to leave the traditional fishing area in the South China Sea, sparking a standoff and raising the question of U.S. commitments to defend its treaty ally the Philippines. Tensions subsided when the United States brokered an agreement for both China and the Philippines to remove their ships. But China reneged on the agreement, kept its ships at Scarborough, and controls the shoal to this day. 

America’s inability to back up the deal it brokered left a lasting impression on the Philippines—and was not lost on others. As Asia analyst Ely Ratner wrote in 2013, “Chinese officials and pundits began speaking of a ‘Scarborough Model’ for exerting regional influence.”

From Washington’s perspective, the future direction of the relationship depends largely on Beijing’s intentions. As one former senior U.S. official put it to me, “I’m less concerned about specific issues of contention in U.S.-China relations; I’m more concerned about China’s long-term ambitions of becoming the regional hegemon.”

If China continues its assertive behavior, a stronger regional network can serve as a peer pressure mechanism to shape China’s behavior. If China continues to bully its neighbors, U.S. alliances and partnerships will strengthen the ability of the U.S. and the rest of Asia to resist Chinese coercion. 

While the rebalance is not an attempt to contain China, China’s actions could have the unintended consequence of turning the rebalance—and the policies of countries across Asia—into containment.

Opinion polls reveal that U.S. policies have indeed given it a firmer footing in Asia. For example, between 2007 and 2015, positive views of the U.S. rose from 58 percent to 84 percent in South Korea, 29 percent to 62 percent in Indonesia, and 27 percent to 54 percent in Malaysia. And yet, it will be difficult to keep making progress in the face of headwinds.

Domestic obstacles abound. The TPP is running into difficulty at home amidst debates over how effective trade deals are at helping American workers. A future president could decide to skip regional summits. And budgetary constraints will continue to limit choices, especially as conflict in the Middle East and threats from Russia persist.

Opinion polls are fleeting, and domestic circumstances change. And that is why the rebalance was intended for the long haul. Talking about the focus on Asia, Deputy National Security Advisor for Strategic Communications Ben Rhodes told me that years from now, “I would hope that people look back and say that this was the moment when we really started to put this at the center of American foreign policy.” 

When President Obama goes to Laos and China this week, the opportunities and challenges of the rebalance going forward will be apparent. 

Obama will become the first U.S. president to visit Laos, a landlocked country of roughly seven million people that is the most heavily bombed country on earth per capita, a disastrous legacy left by the United States after the Vietnam War. But even Laos, a former enemy that remains deeply skeptical of the United States, is willing to have warmer ties with Washington.  

This attraction to the United States goes deeper than a hedge against China.  Countries like Laos want partnerships with the United States because of what America has to offer: they want U.S. businesses to invest; they want their kids to study in American schools; and even in places with single-party dictatorships like Laos and Vietnam, there are growing numbers of people who look to the U.S. as a model for human rights and democracy. 

The challenges for the rebalance will be apparent when Obama gets to China. At the moment, Beijing’s policies continue to provoke tensions. If Asia is to remain peaceful and prosperous, the United States and China must learn to see mutual interests at stake in areas of fiercest disagreement, whether maritime disputes or North Korea or trade policy.  

And while the United States will continue pushing back on areas of concern, it will have to resist viewing China only as a threat. Knee-jerk opposition to greater Chinese influence in Asia—such as the botched U.S. response to the Chinese-initiated Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank—could cause even greater friction and have the opposite effect of increasing China’s influence.

The biggest task ahead for the U.S. is shaping China’s choices, and showing it that the only viable path is one of cooperation. As the Obama administration comes to an end, the U.S. is in a much stronger position for the work ahead in Asia. Continuing the rebalance is the best chance to support the peace and prosperity of the region, and to forge an acceptable answer to the question of what happens when a rising power and an established power meet.