Under mounting criticism that his foreign policy lacks coherence, direction, and strength, Barack Obama outlined his view regarding the role the U.S. ought to play in world affairs for the remainder of his presidency in a commencement speech to graduating cadets at West Point. He touched on a number of important issues around the world including the crisis in Ukraine, the Syrian civil war, and the threats posed by terrorism in the Middle East and Africa. The region of the world he conspicuously left out, aside from a passing mention of problems in the South China Sea, was East Asia.
The international order in Asia is coming apart at the seams, largely as a result of maritime disputes between China and its neighbors. It is no surprise that with the world’s attention focused on Ukraine and civil unrest in the Middle East, China has chosen to push the limits of its nine-dash line, where it controversially lays claim to nearly all of the South China Sea. The deployment of an oil rig within waters Vietnam claims as within their Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) has sparked protests and small-scale naval skirmishes between China and Vietnam. China has had similar problems with the Philippines in recent months, and disputes with Japan over the rightful owner of the Senkaku Islands are not disappearing anytime soon. Not to mention the decades-long dispute over the sovereign status of Taiwan and Hong Kong, which has also recently heated up.
In a similar fashion to Putin’s Russia, China is able to drum up popular support for aggressive and expansionist policies by appealing to the restoration of a gloried past, and as a result is flexing its military and economic muscles in a region that it would rather not share influence with the U.S. While Obama made a lot of important points last week on his view regarding the role the U.S. should play in the world, he missed a crucial opportunity to double down on his vaunted “Pivot to Asia,” once the staple of his foreign policy, and reassure U.S. allies in the region that Chinese aggression cannot be tolerated.
Now more than ever, the U.S. needs to get serious about reaching an agreement on the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the economic lynchpin of the Asia pivot that will not only bring about economic gains through increased trade but also signal the U.S. commitment to maintaining peace in the region. If TPP negotiations hit a snag and begin to go the way of the WTO’s Doha Round, the U.S. will have missed a key opportunity to show China that they are serious about maintaining a strong presence in the region.
While the biggest sticking point has been over Japanese tariffs to protect its agriculture and automobile industries, the lack of transparency and secrecy of negotiations has been most troubling to many in the U.S. Granting the president fast-track authority to allow the trade deal to go through will be crucial to its passing, and the best way to accomplish this is through greater transparency and openness about the potential economic and security benefits.
Another important step the U.S. needs to take, as Obama did indeed point out, is the long-overdue ratification of the Law of the Sea Treaty in the Senate. How hypocritical would it be for the U.S. to unilaterally condemn Chinese claims in the South China Sea when it’s not even a signatory to the international laws governing the sea? In the past, ASP has documented the security benefits that could result from ratifying the treaty.
Our allies in Asia need our security guarantees more than ever, and a renewed focus on keeping a strong footprint in the region is essential to checking Chinese aggression. Obama’s “Pivot to Asia” policy took a back seat to Ukraine and the Middle East last week. With the next Crimea more likely located in the Pacific Ocean than the Black Sea, let’s hope this isn’t a sign of things to come.