President Obama will be most remembered for his so-called “Pivot to Asia” policy which emphasized that the United States needed to rebalance its diplomatic and economic efforts in the direction of Asia, particularly in the light of how important this region would be for US interests in the future. That was essentially what motivated the shift, and it manifested itself in the rejuvenation of alliances, the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), and in Obama’s frequent trips to the region.
Pivot to Asia
The concept of the United States pivoting to and rebalancing with Asia was itself important. The United States has, traditionally, had a Eurocentric focus, and so President Obama’s statement that “we would be shifting to Asia” was important. His decision also reflected the demographics of the country. About 80 percent of Americans aged 18-25 see their future connected to Asia in some way. So they very much supported the pivot to Asia policy.
The Obama administration’s most significant achievement in Asia has been to establish an enduring framework for engagement with Southeast Asia. Since the Vietnam War, American diplomacy in Southeast Asia has been episodic, often buffeted by more pressing challenges such as human rights or terrorism. Obama’s real “rebalance” is between Northeast Asia and Southeast Asia. He joined the East Asia Summit, which is hosted by the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, and he established his own US-ASEAN summit.
The ambitious, 12-nation Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) was one of the biggest successes of the Obama administration. Many people thought such a free trade agreement would be very difficult to achieve, especially one that included the United States and Japan, which have the second and the third largest economies in the world, respectively. However, the Obama administration successfully negotiated the trade pact. The agreement, the largest regional trade accord ever, brought together the United States and 11 other nations in a free-trade zone for about 40 percent of the world’s economy. It was intended to lower tariffs while establishing rules for resolving trade disputes, setting patents and protecting intellectual property. On the home front, although Speaker Paul D. Ryan and other congressional Republicans worked with Mr Obama to pass legislation granting fast-track authority to negotiate it over Democratic objections, Mr Obama never submitted the final agreement for approval amid vocal opposition. He was not able to ratify the deal in Congress.
Iran Nuclear Deal
The nuclear agreement that the US and five allies reached with Iran in 2015 was also a big success of Obama administration. The Obama administration attacked the most critical problem — Iran’s march toward nuclear weapons — and negotiated terms that paused Iran’s quest to develop a nuclear strike capability. By design, the agreement did not solve many other problems with Iran, including its support for the Syrian government and for insurgents in Iraq and elsewhere in the Middle East.
Among the largest obstacles faced by the Obama Administration in Asia, perhaps North Korea remains the most important. During Obama’s eight years in office, North Korea’s nuclear threat became much worse. And, the country is going to be one of the biggest challenges facing the Trump Administration. North Korea is rapidly on its way to developing an ICBM that could hit the West Coast of the United States with a nuclear-tip missile. They have crossed many other technical thresholds over the past decade. So, it’s highly likely that North Korea will be one of the most proximate threats President Trump will face. It can be expected that North Korea will demonstrate its long-range nuclear capability during President Trump’s time in office.
Enter Donald Trump
During Trump’s election campaign, there was not a lot of discussion on foreign policy issues. He has entered the Oval Office but still American allies in Asia will be trying to figure out how the new administration is going to staff itself and the new directions of US policy. President Trump has never served in public office before, and most of the countries in the region are unfamiliar with him. Now, they are trying to get to know President Trump and get a sense of his ideas. The Prime Minister of Japan visited with President Trump in New York, the President of South Korea, who has been impeached recently, called President Trump, and a number of others have also contacted him. They’re trying to better understand who he is and what his policies will be. There is a natural tendency among US friends and partners to hedge when there is change or uncertainty in the United States, because they’re not sure what the new policy will be. Currently, a little bit of hedging by US allies and partners is going on. However, this would all change if the Trump administration makes a very strong, positive statement reaffirming the US presence in Asia and his country’s commitment to the region.
As regards the matter of Trans-Pacific Partnership, it seems that the deal has now become a part of history as President Trump has upended America’s traditional, bipartisan trade policy by abandoning it. His order has brought an end to the era of multinational trade agreements that defined global economics for decades.
On the other side, it is not clear whether the other members of the deal would try to move forward on TPP without the United States. It’s possible that many of these countries will start hedging in the sense that they will consider joining the RCEP, the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership – China’s version of a broader, regional free trade agreement.
It is also important to mention here that President Trump often expresses ideas of strong “American Nationalism.” But, when nationalist fervour is growing simultaneously in Asian countries, it will adversely impact the relationship of the United States with these states. The growing nationalism in all Asian countries can be seen in the rhetoric used about development, domestic politics, etc. However, it is unclear whether nationalism would be an obstacle or a lubricant to relations with the United States under Trump, or whether it will have any noticeable impact at all. President Trump has a clear agenda that is focused on issues like tax reform, infrastructure, healthcare and immigration. Despite that, what really determines the direction of presidencies is not the agenda, but the crises that each administration faces. For example, with President Bush, everything changed after 9/11. The entire complexion of his administration, every element of Bush’s policies changed after the attacks.
President Trump may have all these ideas at the beginning of his term, but only after the first crisis will he determine the direction of his administration. Now, when he faces his first crisis, that is, North Korea because of its ballistic missile and nuclear capabilities, it will have a dramatic effect on how he looks at allies and partners in the entire Asian region. When there is a crisis, like that of North Korean ICBMs, the United States needs its allies and partners in the region. Ultimately, US relationship with other countries will be influenced to a much greater degree by larger events, like these crises, than by the longer term trend issues like echo-nationalism and trade competition.