Don’t Forget Asia: Walking and Chewing Gum in Foreign Policy

September 22, 2014

The Obama administration’s first-term grand pivot to Asia is now a distant memory as the president struggles to contain a newly aggressive Russia in Eastern Europe and build an anti-ISIL coalition in the Middle East. On the heels of the NATO summit in Wales and on the eve of the U.N. General Assembly meeting in New York, it’s natural that American foreign policy should be focused on fighting the immediate brushfires that threaten to set entire regions ablaze. Yet, without a proactive, principled, and forward-leaning American foreign policy in East Asia, the longer-term consequences could have Washington leaders wishing they paid more attention.

In July 2013, Japan’s entrance into the Trans-Pacific Partnership — a proposed free-trade agreement between 12 countries with stakes in the Asia-Pacific region — gave it new life, as Japan is entering a new era due to a broad revitalization under Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s leadership. Despite this progress, Washington’s attention is now being held elsewhere, and China is reaping the benefits. As America struggles to maintain the enthusiasm that Obama originally brought to the region, voices at home and allies abroad are beginning to question America’s global role in the partnership.

Asian allies like Japan, and partners like Vietnam, understand the need for American military, political, and economic commitments in East Asia to balance China, but Obama faces a credibility gap between his Asian ambitions and the current political reality. This gap was drastically widened when Obama set and ignored a red line in Syria and Washington sat by as Russia lopped off the territory of Ukraine. Asian nations noticed, particularly those who are not treaty allies.

On their own, Japan, South Korea, India, Australia, Vietnam, Philippines, even the entire Association of Southeast Asian Nations, don’t stand a chance against China in a military contest. However, with the support of the United States and proactive diplomacy at the various Asian summits that now take place regularly across the region, there are numerous opportunities for the United States to engage and reassure its allies. Quagmires in the Middle East offer only a series of “least worst” outcomes while Asia promises a refreshingly welcome set of better outcomes and greater opportunities with the right set of policies, resources, and attention.

Given this simple calculus, it is surprising that Obama has not appeared in Asia as much as his Asian allies would like. Every American president must make critical decisions about his schedule and finite time, which is the greatest international commodity he can offer allies. Politics at home prevented Obama from traveling during the sequestration last year to Asia, but the long travel distance required for its regional gatherings also seems to dissuade this president from living up to his potential as a Trans-Pacific president. This is shortsighted. In Asia, Obama is uniquely set up to benefit from and contribute to coalitions such as those being created by transatlantic and Middle Eastern forces to defeat ISIL. This includes out-of-area partners such as Australia — which gave Obama his greatest endorsement with commitment of boots on the ground — or Japan whose economic development assistance has been paying dividends across the Middle East without fanfare.

The failure of America’s imagination when it comes to foreign policy more broadly is partly a systemic failure in the bureaucratic workings of a checks-and-balances system that requires an American president to request Congress’ approval for war and partly a legacy of human resources in which experts specialize in specific regions. The fact that Middle Eastern and East Asian experts dominate U.S. foreign policy circles should not be surprising; however, the lack of conversation between the two should be. For example, America struggles to convince Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan to join its coalition against ISISL and establish a close working relationship with India’s new Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Yet, Japanese Prime Minister Abe has arguably the best relationship of any American ally with these two leaders and considers both personal friends, so why not ask for his help? Abe’s energetic diplomacy that has driven him to visit over 50 countries in less than 20 months demonstrates his commitment to re-establish Japan’s global role even as “Abenomics” has faltered as of late. Therefore, better utilization of the historic U.S.-Japan alliance under a willing and engaged Abe administration would go a long way and is just one of the many cross-regional possibilities that Obama could be leveraging with ease.

Strategic thinking requires cross-regional groupings to take advantage of such creative opportunities that currently exist for U.S. policymakers who are too busy reacting to events. For instance, Tokyo pays the highest energy prices in the world given the nuclear energy shutdown, a result of the devastating earthquake three years ago. Meanwhile, America’s shale gas revolution, or the Kurdish energy that is coming online in Iraq, could offer new alternatives for a Tokyo that is currently dependent upon Qatari and Iranian natural gas (complicating Washington’s options in the Middle East), but has never been fully explored.

America’s allies around the world, but particularly in Asia, reflect Woody Allen’s maxim that 90% of life is simply showing up. Therefore, as Obama struggles to deal with the global affairs hand he has been dealt in his second term, showing up to reassure his nervous Asian partners that America has not lost its strategic focus as he builds coalitions against ISIL and to isolate Russia is critical. Not losing sight of his administration’s strategic focus on Asia that defined his first term even as fires burn across the Middle East and Eurasia will allow Obama to build on the synergies of cross-regionalism that will increasingly become the norm in the 21st century.