As President Obama embarks on his long-planned — and twice-canceled — trip to Asia this month, Washington speculation is centered on just what his administration’s highly touted “pivot” from the Middle East to Asia will actually mean.
Plenty of U.S.-based foreign policy experts are weighing in, but few speak with as much authority as Elizabeth Economy, the director for Asia studies and C.V. Starr senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. In op-eds, news columns, blogs, books and numerous interviews, Economy consistently lends clarity to discussions of the complex, rapidly changing region.
An expert on China, Economy is the author of “The River Runs Black: The Environmental Challenges to China’s Future” and co-author of “By All Means Necessary: How China’s Resource Quest is Changing the World,” in which she and Michael Levi explore the unrivaled expansion of the Chinese economy and the global effects of its meteoric rise.
“The top priority for the president’s trip should be fostering a more cooperative relationship between Japan and South Korea, perhaps by boosting a sense of trilateralism on critical issues such as North Korea, regional environmental concerns and the Trans-Pacific Partnership [trade deal],” Economy told us. “A close second is ensuring that the United States is on the same page with the Philippines, Japan and even Malaysia on addressing China’s expanding interests and presence in the South and East China Seas.”
While China is not one of the stops on Obama’s itinerary, it is sure to be high on the agenda. China’s territorial ambitions and growing military might have aroused suspicion among many of its smaller neighbors, giving the United States a window to reassert itself as a Pacific power. On that note, experts say the Asian pivot is as much about improving relations with the area’s fast-growing economies as it is an attempt to counter Chinese hegemony in the region.
China’s various maritime disputes are certain to loom large during Obama’s visit. China and Japan both claim control over a rocky outcropping of islands called the Senkaku in Japan and the Diaoyu in China. Meanwhile, in the South China Sea, home to rich fishing, oil and mineral resources, China has competing claims of sovereignty with Southeast Asian nations including Vietnam, the Philippines and Malaysia. Sporadic clashes have erupted over the years, and China recently declared a controversial air defense identification zone in the East China Sea demanding that commercial planes identify themselves to Chinese air traffic control.
China’s territorial claims snake deep into waters that extend past its continental shelf, and for the first time this past February, U.S. officials said that the so-called “nine-dash line” China uses to demarcate its rights over the South China Sea breaches international law because the territorial boundaries are not based on land features.
However, Washington insists it’s not taking sides on the sovereignty disputes and wants them settled peacefully in a multilateral setting, preferably by establishing a code of conduct. But Beijing would rather tackle them one by one, presumably to wield more clout in bilateral negotiations.
China also says the conflicts aren’t any of Washington’s business. The United States counters that retaining unfettered rights to navigate the South China Sea, one of the busiest shipping routes in the world, is in its national interest.
“When necessary we need to push back,” Economy said of the maritime disputes. “If we don’t and we give China an inch they will definitely take a mile. That’s one of the things we need to be concerned about. At some point in time if China keeps pushing and pushing, if nobody pushes back, de facto they’ve asserted sovereignty. That’s a real challenge.
“We can’t allow that kind of incremental advancement in terms of their controlling the territory in the South China Sea,” Economy added. “We really have to be on alert for this incremental change they’re making or we’ll wake up one day and find out that they’ve basically managed to assert sovereignty over the entire nine-dash line.”
Economy’s warnings about the danger of complacency is a theme in her new book “By All Means Necessary,” which details how China has gobbled up raw materials around the world to feed its explosive economic growth. At the same time, she and Levi debunk theories that the resource race will invariably lead to conflict, social problems and environmental destruction, arguing that policymakers need to take a more nuanced view of China’s complex internal dynamics.
“Understanding Chinese behavior abroad requires understanding Chinese behavior at home,” the authors write. Economy points out that President Xi Jinping has been working to consolidate his political power, in part by cracking down on corruption, stifling dissent and courting neighbors with lucrative business deals.
Beijing’s economic courtship stands in stark contrast to its bellicose defense posturing. But Economy said she understands why China has been flexing its muscles in the region.
“There are a number of factors that play into China’s more assertive stance pushing out on its maritime claims,” she said. “It’s partly having to do with resources, partly having to do with nationalism and partly having to do with security — real security concerns.”
For one thing, Beijing worries that Obama’s Asian pivot is simply a thinly veiled military campaign to contain China’s influence.
“I see it largely as a means of China asserting its claims of what it believes is sovereign territory but … it’s never been comfortable relying on the U.S. for its sea lane security,” Economy explained. “As China continues to develop its naval capacity and its other military capacity, it will continue to push out. The key at this point is for both the United States and the region, when necessary, to push back but also really push forward on trying to develop some of the rules of the road here.”
Getting other countries to cooperate with that strategy is another matter entirely. Near the top of Obama’s agenda are back-to-back meetings with the leaders of Japan and South Korea, key U.S. allies that are increasingly antagonistic toward each other.
Already rocky relations have deteriorated even more since Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe took office in December 2012. The two countries have butted heads over their own territorial dispute, and long-simmering hostilities heated up a notch after Abe visited a war shrine in Tokyo that is viewed by many Asian nations as an offensive symbol of Japan’s militaristic past. (Japan occupied South Korea for 35 years.)
Abe’s administration further exacerbated tensions by vowing to review evidence that led to Japan’s landmark 1993 apology to women, many of them Koreans, who were forced to work as sex slaves during World War II. Abe’s administration has since backed away from the move but said it will continue to examine the highly sensitive issue.
The widening rift is unsettling to U.S. leaders who view South Korea and Japan as the nation’s most important allies in the region — and the best hope for keeping China in check. The United States has more than 60,000 troops stationed across Japan and South Korea and consults with both nations regularly on the pariah state of North Korea, considered a wildly erratic nuclear threat.
“Japan and South Korea are not that interested in coming to the table together. It makes our life far more complicated,” Economy said. “They’re our allies in the region and to have them feuding certainly is not in our interest.
“We partner with them on a whole range of issues,” she added. “They’ve indicated they’re not interested in having a poor relationship, but neither side is willing to give and because the issues are really, in some respects, historical issues that have been brought up to the contemporary time, it’s a little more difficult to deal with.”
Economy suggested that one party in the dispute, whether Japan or South Korea, must make some sort of conciliatory gesture before there can be a thaw in their relationship.
“Clearly, it’s not easy or it would have already been fixed,” she said. “One side has to rein in and do some of the public diplomacy.”
Speaking of diplomacy, Caroline Kennedy, the new U.S. ambassador to Japan, is taking a new approach to a bilateral relationship that has long been full of platitudes and niceties. After an initial honeymoon, Kennedy — the daughter of President John F. Kennedy — publicly expressed her chagrin at Japan’s practice of slaughtering dolphins that have been effectively corralled into coves.
“Deeply concerned by inhumaneness of drive hunt dolphin killing,” Kennedy tweeted in January after the annual ritual — one that Japanese officials insist is culturally important.
Economy said Kennedy, like any ambassador, needs to carefully balance the criticisms that she conveys publicly and privately.
“No country likes to be criticized by their foreign ambassadors, but she is our representative and when issues arise … it’s important that she represent Washington’s views — the president’s views,” Economy said. “There is an element of diplomacy that goes along with being an ambassador and you have to pick and choose your issues, when you want to make a very public statement and when you want to indicate displeasure in private.
“That may take a little bit of an adjustment, especially I think for ambassadors that are not career diplomats but private sector individuals,” she added. “You can’t come out and criticize on every issue because you’ll lose your voice.”
Obama’s Asia tour, expected in late April, comes on the heels of Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel’s announcement in February that as part of mandatory spending cuts, the Pentagon plans to reduce the size of the U.S. Army to pre-World War II levels — at the same time that China has been steadily beefing up its own military budget. The announcement prompted some American hawks to complain that the military reduction undermines Obama’s previous claim that America would “pivot” its resources away from the Middle East to more pressing concerns in the Pacific. However, Washington has already shown some intent to put its money where its mouth is. The United States is now basing littoral ships in Singapore and rotating as many as 2,500 Marines through northern Australia, in addition to outfitting Japan with cutting-edge drones and radar systems.
Nevertheless, some in the military openly questioned Obama’s intentions when Hagel announced the Pentagon cuts.
“Right now, the pivot is being looked at again because, candidly, it can’t happen,” Katrina McFarland, assistant secretary of defense for acquisition, said at a defense conference in Washington in late February.
After a small uproar in the media, McFarland backed away from her statement somewhat, issuing a written one that aimed to put her remarks in context and stressed that the “rebalance to Asia can and will continue.”
Regardless of the clarification, Economy said McFarland’s comments were ill timed and likely played poorly in Asia.
“One of the things that officials and scholars in the region and Asia constantly bemoan is the fact that the United States tends to enter and exit the region depending on the degree of attention it is paid,” she said. “They don’t feel as though they can count on the United States to be deeply engaged consistently over time. So, to have an official in the Defense Department say we really just can’t afford it, and it’s basically not going to happen, obviously is not helpful to the credibility of the United States.
“People in Asia have come to expect that members of Congress will speak with many different voices, but it is not useful to have members of the military, for example, offering different perspectives on our ability to fulfill the pivot or how we perceive China’s military action,” Economy continued. “Obviously, this resonates through the region, and it’s important not only for our allies but for countries like China [who might] begin to think that no, the United States isn’t going to be present and … we’re going to push even harder right now because the U.S. doesn’t really have the resources.”
She added: “It’s poor politics across the board.”
Politics, though, may get in the way of one of the most pressing issues on Obama’s agenda during his Asia trip: the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). The free trade pact involves a dozen Pacific Rim nations, mostly in Asia but also Latin America, that account for 40 percent of the world’s GDP. Notably absent from the roster is China, which has viewed the TPP as an American power play in the Pacific.
However, Obama’s biggest obstacle may be his own party. Democrats are opposed to Trade Promotion Authority, which allows the president to submit free trade agreements to Congress for an up-or-down vote, without giving lawmakers the ability to make changes — considered key to getting complex trade deals through Capitol Hill. Democrats and labor groups argue that such sweeping trade deals outsource millions of American jobs to low-wage countries and erode environmental protections, while Republicans and business interests say they stimulate economic growth (although quite a few Republicans are also wary of giving Obama free rein to negotiate trade pacts).
The political gridlock has added to the perception of the president’s impotence on the world stage. In fact, partisan sniping forced Obama to cancel his Asia trip late last year, when the government shut down.
Economy said the political pushback on TPP from members of Obama’s own party “undermines his authority” abroad and doesn’t bode well for the pact’s chances in Congress.
“We did not initiate the Trans-Pacific Partnership negotiations but we are a primary force driving them at this point,” she told The Diplomat. “This is the centerpiece of our entire economic effort in the region so it is not helpful, clearly, to make it appear as though our ducks are not in a row when it comes to these trade negotiations because it completely undermines [U.S. Trade Representative] Mike Froman’s credibility and our credibility broadly in the region. It’s very hard for different countries to make concessions when they’re looking at the United States and saying they might not get this through Congress themselves.”
Although China is not a party to the TPP, Economy suggested its opposition to the trade pact is evolving.
“Early on it seemed [to Beijing] almost entirely an effort to contain China and to compete with China’s push on its own regional comprehensive economic partnership,” she explained. “Now, there are substantial groups within China — within the Ministry of Finance and Commerce — that are quite interested in the TPP and follow the negotiations quite closely, and talk to a range of actors and really think about the TPP as a mechanism to help push domestic reform when they can sit down at the table as well.”
While some international observers have questioned Obama’s decision to skip China on this Asia jaunt, Economy doesn’t see it as a big deal, especially since his wife, Michelle, visited China in March.
“That’s very public diplomacy,” Economy said. “I don’t think it’s necessary for the president to visit China every time he goes to Asia. The time for the president to go to China really should be, at this point, when we have some major issues we can discuss and make progress on. Until that time, I think it’s better to send Cabinet secretaries and others to try to work through issues until we’re ready to have some breakthroughs.”
But there needs to be an overarching strategy that makes clear the pivot is here to stay, she adds. “I continue to think that the rebalance is an important, in fact essential, framework for our approach to Asia. However, there needs to be someone of authority to oversee the messaging from Washington and to keep policy on track. It is useful to have senior officials travel frequently to the region, but the effort needs more coherence.”
About the Author
Michael Coleman is a contributing writer for The Washington Diplomat.