Barack Obama's upcoming trip to Asia--to Malaysia, the Philippines, South Korea and Japan, specifically--comes at a distressing time for America's friends in the region. Sure, there are the historical differences between Japan and South Korea that have resurfaced because of various statements and moves by Shinzo Abe and various figures in his administration. But the heart of these anxieties revolves around China, the growing behemoth that's looming over the present and future of Asia.
America's allies, such as Japan, South Korea, the Philippines, and Australia and Taiwan, to name but a few, are facing the prospect of a rising China economically and militarily dominating the region. On the economic front, there is the risk that they'll eventually be "Finlandized," as a natural course of trade and commercial ties with China. That is to say, growing interdependence in the region, with China as the central economic hub, will gradually realign the interests of America's friends in ways that are consistent with Beijing's. In short, they'll simply get sucked into China's orbit.
Meantime, on military and security matters, China's rapidly increasing defense budgets, its streamlined foreign policy apparatus, and its improving naval capabilities threaten the safety and security of countries in Asia. In response, U.S. allies, like the Philippines, have resorted to legal recourse to resolve disputes. They have also ramped up their defense budgets and are in the process of procuring the newest and latest vessels, subs, aircraft, and so on. But most important is the role of the U.S. in preserving a balance of power throughout the region. Even U.S. allies readily admit this.
The problem, though, is that these countries fear being abandoned by the U.S., that America won't have their back in times of need. These fears of abandonment are acute at the moment. You see, U.S. allies are concerned about what they see from the Obama administration, Washington and America more generally. And what they observe is a weakened, distracted and increasingly inward-focused U.S., one that's suffering from a political, security and economic malaise.
What's the evidence? Where to begin?
1. America is still recovering from its worst economic catastrophe in 70 years, and has implementing widespread budget cuts, particularly on foreign affairs. Will the U.S. have the financial wherewithal to provide a meaningful, longstanding commitment to Asia?
2. As seen in last year's government shutdown, which forced Obama to cancel his planned trip to Asia, America's Congress is dysfunctional, too often prone to partisan politics and bickering, rendering the body unable to deal effectively with issues and problems--whether these issues and problems are at home, Europe, Ukraine, the Middle East or Asia. Congress, at this point, is purely a reactive body. But is that sufficient to deal with the rise of China?
3. Asian countries widely believe that the U.S. can't pivot from the Middle East. Too many problems, too many interest groups, and too much oil will dictate that America won't be able to "rebalance" from the Middle East to Asia. Asia will remain second fiddle, at best, in U.S. foreign policy.
4. After more than a decade of two wars, with dollars and human lives lost forever, America is seemingly retreating from the world. Even polling data is now starting to support this assessment. An inward-looking America doesn't have the time or patience or resources for Asia, right?
5. And then there's Ukraine. Rumblings from Asia indicate that local leaders are alarmed at how Team Obama has handled the dismemberment of Ukrainian territory. In their view, Obama has effectively given Putin a free pass at annexing Crimea and possibly parts of Eastern Ukraine. They worry that his passive stance toward Russia is how he would deal with China in the event that Beijing attempts to seize control over the South and East China Seas. And quite frankly, given how Obama responded to China's ADIZ over the East China Sea last November, they have just cause to be very concerned.
All of the above, combined, points to the idea that there are good reasons to question how committed the U.S. will be to its Asian allies over the long-term. As should be obvious, one visit to the region by Obama will hardly soothe all of these concerns. And promises--either by Obama or his associates--will help but will only go so far. Japan, South Korea, the Philippines and Taiwan want concrete action.
It's a good thing that the Trans-Pacific Partnership is on Obama's agenda. In my view, getting the TPP done and ratified--of course, something that's far from guaranteed, for lots of reasons--would probably help America's friends the most. As an institutionalized mechanism, it forces the U.S. to make a long-term commitment to the region. The TPP would likely strengthen the economies of participating countries--most importantly, Australia, Brunei, Japan, Malaysia, New Zealand, Singapore and Vietnam--especially in relation to China. And it would also enable the U.S. and its Asian partners to begin to write the economic rules that will define the 21st century, the rules by which China will have to abide.
The TPP isn't a panacea, to be sure. But it's the type of tool that the U.S. ought to be thinking about more in the context of its ties to Asia. Heck, maybe the TPP could get the ball rolling for the U.S. to start drafting ideas on security institutions in Asia. For instance, what about an Asian NATO? Or maybe a more loose security framework, like a non-aggression pact? Something to think about.