January 16, 2017 5:00 am JST
Keith B. Richburg

Obama's fraught foreign policy legacy in Asia

The outgoing US president achieved some successes, but left much unfinished

U.S. President Barack Obama waves as he is joined by First Lady Michelle Obama and daughter Malia Obama after giving his presidential farewell address at McCormick Place in Chicago on Jan. 10. © AP

U.S. President-elect Donald Trump's unpredictability makes it impossible to say with any certainty in which direction he might take U.S. foreign policy over the next four years. But the benefit of hindsight allows for a steely assessment of U.S. President Barack Obama's legacy on the world stage and particularly in Asia. His accomplishments -- and more so his failures -- create perils and opportunities for the incoming Trump team.

At home, Obama leaves an economy in strong shape. He took office at the height of a debilitating global recession, with spiraling job losses and a housing crisis. But he will bequeath to his successor a modest unemployment rate of 4.7%; 76 straight months of job growth; virtually nonexistent inflation; an average annual gross domestic product growth rate of 2.1%; and a stock market flirting with an elusive and historic Dow Jones Index high of 20,000.

But abroad, the landscape is fraught and no more so than in Asia, where Obama's actual accomplishments never matched his soaring ambitions. Asia today is home to the most combustible flashpoints for the Trump administration.

On trade, Trump has set the U.S. on a potential collision course with China. His threat to label the Beijing government as a currency manipulator and trade cheat, and to retaliate with tariffs of as much as 45%, would likely spark a trade war between the world's two largest economies. There is also potential for an armed conflict, with China showing growing assertiveness in the South China Sea and the Taiwan Strait, risking an escalating response from the U.S.

Trump also sharply criticized Tokyo's trade and currency policies during his campaign, although he appears to have tempered his anti-Japanese rhetoric since Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe became the first foreign leader to meet him after his election. Trump also accused Japan and South Korea of being defense freeloaders who should pay more for the U.S. security umbrella.

Another flashpoint is North Korea, with the mercurial young leader, Kim Jong-un vowing to test launch a ballistic missile capable of reaching continental United States. Trump, using his favorite communications method of Twitter, responded by declaring: "It won't happen!" He also chided China for profiting on trade with Pyongyang but not helping rein in its neighbor's nuclear ambitions, adding sarcastically: "Nice!"

Regional trade policy also seems in disarray with Trump vowing to scrap the complex Trans-Pacific Partnership trade pact that was meant to knit together the U.S. and 11 other regional economies, while opening up Japan's markets and instituting new protections for U.S. intellectual property. Trump has suggested he prefers bilateral trade deals over multilateral ones, presumably because he thinks the U.S. can wield more leverage.

China's regional trade ambitions

With the apparent collapse of the TPP, which would represent the biggest setback to Obama's foreign policy agenda in Asia, China is now pushing ahead with a rival agreement, the Free Trade Area of the Asia-Pacific, which notably excludes the U.S.

Australia, a key U.S. ally, has indicated support for the China trade pact, raising the prospect of the U.S. being left on the sidelines as a new Beijing-led regional trading order takes shape.

This all adds up to a distressing Asia legacy for Obama who early on dubbed himself "America's First Pacific President."

Born in Hawaii, partly reared in Indonesia, Obama came to office boasting that he had more personal Asian ties and sensibilities than any of his predecessors. After a decade of American wars in the Middle East, he wanted to reorient U.S. policy to the world's most dynamic economic region.

Obama also wanted to remake the often-troubled Sino-American relationship. He pledged to visit China in his first year in office, played down areas of friction like public criticisms of Beijing's human rights record, and he delayed meeting the Dalai Lama, the exiled Tibetan spiritual leader reviled by Beijing's Communist rulers. Obama actively sought areas where Washington and Beijing could cooperate, particularly on nuclear nonproliferation, stabilizing the global financial system, jointly exploring outer space, and combating climate change.

But other than climate change -- where Chinese leaders have their own domestic imperatives amid growing public outrage over air pollution -- Obama found most of his early overtures rebuffed.

To the Obama administration, cooperation on nonproliferation meant working to end the nuclear programs of Iran and North Korea. Beijing had friendly relations and trade with both countries. Chinese leaders were never interested in more than superficial cooperation in outer space since China sees space as a place of potential rivalry with the U.S. and its space program is closely linked to secretive military programs. China also showed little interest in helping much during the financial crisis, for example declining to get involved in a European bailout fund for the euro.

Despite Obama's efforts to play down friction, the Chinese leadership still reacted vociferously -- including temporarily cutting off some contacts --when Obama did finally meet the Dalai Lama (who was ushered into the White House through a back door) and when the U.S. proceeded with a planned weapons sale to Taiwan. China also moved aggressively to assert its territorial claims in the South China Sea by constructing reefs with military airstrips.

Pivot fizzles

The TPP trade deal was supposed to be the economic cornerstone of the U.S. "pivot," or rebalancing, to Asia. But Obama, in his first term, barely gave the trade deal more than a passing mention, and seemed unwilling to expend any political capital in building a case for it with reluctant constituencies, like trade unions worried about job losses or environmentalists concerned that the deal's environmental protections were inadequate.

Obama did win "fast track" powers from the U.S. Congress in June 2015 to allow him to conclude the trade pact. But by then, he was facing an inhospitable political calendar, with the election to replace him fully underway and liberals in his own party, like Senator Elizabeth Warren, campaigning against the deal.

Obama also decided to oppose China's plans to set up a new international bank to fund Asia's massive need for new ports, highways, bridges and high speed trains. Most analysts now agree that his decision to keep the U.S. out of the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank was a major strategic blunder that benefitted China, with most U.S. allies opting to join the new bank.

Moreover, as much as Obama hoped to reorient U.S. policy toward Asia, he spent much of his time, like his predecessors, focusing on the Middle East and its intractable conflicts.

Overall, Obama does leave behind some successes in Asia, notably a new relationship with a democratic Myanmar after two decades of sanctions. There is a new strategic partnership between the U.S. and Vietnam, following Obama's decision in late 2014 to lift a long-standing ban on arms sales to Hanoi. The U.S. now has basing rights in Darwin, Australia.

The U.S. in 2014 also signed a 10-year defense cooperation agreement with the Philippines, allowing American troops to rotate through five bases while helping the Philippine military with counterinsurgency operations in the country's southern islands. But the new populist Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, as unpredictable and intemperate as Trump, has called for the U.S. troops to leave within two years.

Trump, in many ways, has a chance to build on Obama's unfinished Asian pivot. He says he wants a more robust U.S. military and would be more forceful in countering China, which may mean increased U.S. military basing rights. Trump seems even less inclined than Obama to get sucked into Middle East conflicts, appearing content to let Russia to combat the Islamic State in Syria, for example.

No U.S. president has had much success dealing with North Korea. China has never seemed willing to apply pressure to its neighbor and Beijing's leaders are more worried about instability and collapse in North Korea than a mercurial dictator with nuclear weapons. Maybe Trump can succeed where others have failed.

But everything Trump does on the foreign policy scene will be overshadowed if he unleashes a trade war with China, which would have devastating consequences for the global economy. Even worse would be a shooting war between the U.S. and China over some unintended encounter in the South China Sea.

Obama leaves behind a precarious world order and a series of unfinished conflicts and problems. Trump has the opportunity to make things better. But he also has the potential to make things a lot worse.

It is almost impossible to be optimistic. But as Obama told us all in his eloquent farewell address, we should never give up hope.

Keith B. Richburg, a former foreign editor of The Washington Post, is director of Hong Kong University's Journalism and Media Studies Center.

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