By Marc Moussalli
America’s pivot to Asia has been discussed widely since the strategy was unveiled in President Obama’s speech to the Australian Parliament in 2011. Although many other global strategic issues needed to be addressed since then, it is interesting to revisit the rebalancing because Obama’s rhetoric can be used as a prism through which his idea of America’s priorities will become clear.
Against the backdrop of China’s launch of the AIIB, it is an appropriate time to recall how the 44th President interprets America’s interests, how the pivot has been perceived by China and what it means for the business climate in the region.
Obama’s foreign policy has promoted America’s interests through hard and soft power. However, perhaps surprisingly, the former is emphasised over the latter. To Obama, commercial considerations are important, but mainly as the foundation of military prowess. His view of US interests presupposes continued American supremacy in the Western hemisphere and the deterrence of a regional hegemon in Asia. Essentially, what Obama said in 2011 was a thinly veiled warning to China.
Obama’s Pivot a Shift Toward Authoritative Foreign Policy
Obama’s authoritative language stands out. By highlighting that, “as President, I have, therefore, made a deliberate and strategic decision” to rebalance to Asia-Pacific, Obama wanted to demonstrate leadership. Furthermore, by saying “we are here to stay” he emphasised that the pivot is a strategic project which will not be averted.
He also expressed the American ability to harness new beginnings. Obama admitted that the focus on Asia-Pacific is no small step but “reflects a broader shift” for America away from the Middle East, and pronounced the past decade of fighting over by declaring “the tide of war is receding and America is looking forward to the future.”
The president likened the pivot to a contest, explaining that “America competes aggressively in Asian markets” but is also bound by rules. He expected other nations to respect fair play. Obama also emphasized that America is a leading investor, and not merely an extractor of resources, clearly a stab at Beijing.
Besides, he maintained that economic growth has to incorporate the will of the people and cannot be imposed. Ironically, China, by far Asia’s economic powerhouse, was and is not part of negotiations involving the US-led Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), intended to integrate Asia-Pacific’s economies into a single trading community.
Obama’s speech displayed a decisively hawkish feel. Surely, Obama’s trust in military power must be one of the more under-appreciated aspects of his presidency. Obama assertively spoke as the Commander-in-Chief when he stressed America’s “strong military presence in this region” and its “unique ability to project power and deter threats to peace.”
The speech was full of implicit and indirect insinuations: Obama not only stressed that America will maintain strong armed forces but that it will improve them and geographically distribute them more broadly. Furthermore, the president reaffirmed treaty obligations to regional allies, including Taiwan and South Korea.
Touching on liberal issues, he opined that ‘prosperity without freedom is just another form of poverty’ and emphasised the universality of human values. The importance of workers’ rights, the necessity for market-driven currencies and a broader distribution of wealth, all contentious elements in the US-Chinese relationship, were also referred to.
Obama pointed out that “history is on the side of the free” and that democracy is “the greatest form of government ever known to man.” The president argued that other models of governance, particularly communism or rule by committee, ignore the will of the people and thus lack legitimacy.
Given all this, it is not only interesting to note what Obama said about America’s national interest and how he choose to do so but also at whom he aimed his remarks. Ever the statesman, all of his condemnations were purely implicit and Obama did not refer directly to a specific country – in fact, the administration clearly stressed that the pivot is “not about any single country,” which seems to suggest that, implicitly, the recipient is evident and Obama’s critique is nuanced.
Obama was letting Beijing know that the US will not tolerate a Chinese challenge to America’s military and economic supremacy in Asia-Pacific.
China is Not Overly Impressed With the New Assessment
Fast forward to 2015 and it would appear that China has not been overly impressed. Since 2011, Beijing has engaged in saber-rattling by declaring an extended air defence identification zone around disputed territories in the South China Sea in 2013. It has vetoed initiatives in the UN Security Council preventing resolutions on the war in Syria.
And recently, Beijing has displayed its skilled foreign policy and international clout by establishing the 50 billion USD Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) against US opposition. The Bank, mostly funded by China and supported by many traditional US allies in Europe and Asia, will finance major infrastructure projects in the region and will undoubtedly advance China’s soft power and regional influence.
It shows that China is interested in engaging with global business, albeit on its own terms. It also shows that Obama’s pivot and his view of national priorities have so far proved of limited effectiveness.
America’s predominance in Asia-Pacific is being openly challenged, for now primarily in the economic realm: Whether America likes it or not, China will increasingly dictate regional terms of business, trade and finance, and the world will listen. This is not likely to change during Obama’s remaining time in office, or after that.