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Pivotal Failure
Former U.S. president leaves behind an unsubstantial legacy in the Asia-Pacific
By Dominic James Madar | NO. 11 MARCH 16, 2017


U.S. and Philippine soldiers participate in a joint military exercise on Luzon Island on June 28, 2013 (XINHUA)  

Back in April 2007 at the very first Democratic presidential primary debate of the 2008 U.S. general election, an up-and-coming Illinois Senator was questioned on the United States' most important allies around the world. After speaking briefly on Europe and the Middle East, he said, "We also have to look east, because increasingly the center of gravity in this world is shifting to Asia. Japan has been an outstanding ally of ours for many years, but obviously China is rising, and it's not going away. They're neither our enemy nor our friend. They're competitors."

The senator would go on to defeat party favorite Hillary Clinton in the primaries before sweeping to victory over Republican rival John McCain. Barack H. Obama made no secret of his intention to pivot to Asia during his presidency, reasoning in an address to the Australian Parliament on November 17, 2011, that the "United States has been, and always will be, a Pacific nation." He also cited the region's rapid economic growth and mega population as factors in the pivot, which in turn would benefit the U.S. economy. However, critics assert these were merely used to mask Obama's true intention—to contain and manage the rise of China.

Contradictory objectives underpin U.S. foreign policy in the Asia-Pacific region, particularly in economic matters that concern China. Da Wei, Director of the Institute of American Studies at the China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations, asserted that Obama's strategy in the region is inconsistent. He told Beijing Review, "I don't think [he] had a clear China policy. The China-U.S. relationship entered a new phase during Obama's term due to the relative change in power between the countries." Although the United States has maintained its position of dominance on a global scale, the balance of power between it and China has gradually shifted east since the signing of the Shanghai Communiqué by Chairman Mao Zedong and President Richard Nixon in 1972.


Chinese major construction machinery giants participate in the Conexpo in Las Vegas, the United States, on March 8 (XINHUA)  


It's the economy, stupid 

The Obama administration was eager to capitalize on the region's burgeoning development, which for the last decade stood in marked contrast to the European Union. Since the 2008 global financial crisis, China alone has been responsible for approximately one third of global economic growth. However, preserving American hegemony has been a core tenet of U.S. administrations following World War II—in the Asia-Pacific this manifests as a reluctance to relinquish regional preeminence.

In September 2009, less than a year into office, Obama slapped a 35-percent tariff on Chinese automobile tire imports in a move widely condemned on both sides of the Pacific. Irwin Stelzer, an American economist, noted in a policy critique penned in The Weekly Standard at the time that, "the Obama team makes it a practice of releasing announcements of which they are not particularly proud on weekends, when they get buried under sports news and the commentariat are out of town." Stelzer went on to explain how the tariff would be detrimental to both sides. "Significantly, U.S. tire manufacturers did not join in the complaint: They lose money at the low-end of the tire market, and most have simply abandoned it to the Chinese."

The tire fiasco became symbolic of a tactic routinely adopted by Obama throughout his presidency, as he sought to check growing Chinese economic influence justified on the grounds of protecting American jobs and industry.

On his first official visit to Asia two months later, Obama confirmed U.S. support for negotiations in the Trans-Pacific-Partnership Agreement (TPP), a proposal between 12 nations in the Asia-Pacific region, including the United States and Japan, to enhance economic cooperation through coordinated policies on tariff reduction and regulation. As these countries account for approximately 40 percent of global GDP, finalizing the deal was one of Obama's key pillars in his Asian pivot strategy.

China's absence from this agreement led many to conclude that Obama's chief motive behind the TPP was to maintain U.S. influence in the region at the expense of a rising China—an allegation denied by the Obama administration. Cheng Xiaohe, an associate professor at Renmin University, told Beijing Review that, "Obama's administration not only wanted to hedge against China's challenge to its leadership in the world in general and in East Asia in particular, but also wanted to benefit from the economic growth [in the region]." After several rounds of negotiation over seven years, the deal was finally signed by the 12 nations in February last year, though Obama was unable to ratify it before he left the White House. On January 23, new U.S. President Donald Trump, who described the agreement as a disaster, pulled out of the TPP, effectively terminating the deal.

However, the volume of Sino-U.S. bilateral trade has largely followed a positive trajectory throughout Obama's tenure. According to statistics from the U.S. Department of Commerce, exports to the Chinese mainland in 2009 accounted for $69.6 billion, while imports from the Chinese mainland totaled $296.4 billion. In 2016, the corresponding figures jumped to $115.8 billion and $462.8 billion, respectively, reflecting the growing trade and economic interdependence of the two nations. Although economic cooperation with China could have been greater, Obama was successful in avoiding both a trade and currency war, which would have severe ramifications for both countries and the world at large.

Philippines and the South China Sea 

In 2013, the Philippines initiated an arbitration case against China under Annex VII to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), disputing Chinese territorial claims over certain islands in the South China Sea.

As early as February that year, China denounced the legitimacy of the arbitration case on the grounds that it was essentially an issue of territorial sovereignty and maritime delimitation. Since such issues do not fall under the jurisdiction of the UNCLOS, China advocated a bilateral solution to be agreed upon by the two nations themselves.

After more than three years, on July 12, 2016, the tribunal finally reached a verdict, ruling in favor of the Philippines and dismissing China's sovereignty claims as null and void. China, however, refuted this immediately and considers the award null and void.

The Philippines issued this case under former President Benigno Aquino III, who was closely allied—as most recent Philippine administrations have been—to the United States. Washington insisted that Beijing adhere to the tribunal award. According to the White House, Obama emphasized "the importance for China to abide by its obligations under the treaty," in a discussion with Chinese President Xi Jinping before the Hangzhou G20 Summit last September.

However, in addition to the Chinese Government, new Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte has dismissed the tribunal ruling and seeks to resolve the issue bilaterally through collaboration. Duterte has also spoken critically of U.S. imperialism in the Philippines and sought to forge closer ties with Beijing, rather than Washington. Consequently, the tribunal award has not only been rejected by the new Philippine Government, but has also been an unnecessary waste of resources and energy

American meddling 

In security matters, controversy exists over Seoul's decision to allow the United States to deploy the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense system in South Korea, which is justified as a counter to the nuclear threat from North Korea. However, both Beijing and Moscow are concerned that the system could be used to weaken their national defenses, destabilizing the region.

Furthermore, the Obama administration and much of the American mainstream media—without a hint of irony—have criticized Chinese military buildup in the South China Sea, citing it as a consequence of Chinese "aggression." Perhaps American exceptionalism blinds them to the hundreds of military bases that the United States has been fortifying in close proximity to the Chinese coastline. (The Western media has a tendency to leave this part out.)

Obama spent much of his presidency championing liberal values and peace in eloquent speeches, yet in reality he has provoked and escalated several conflicts across the world.

Sino-U.S. relations, though rocky at times, did not severely deteriorate during the Obama presidency, and the continuous increase in bilateral trade and culture exchange underscores a maturing relationship which both sides have been keen to develop. However, the collapse of the TPP and the abandoned South China tribunal tarnish Obama's legacy in the Asia-Pacific.

Copyedited by Bryan Michael Galvan 

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