Assessing the Asia Pivot
n the course of two months in the fall of 2011, the President and his administration—particularly the Secretary of State—conducted a political and diplomatic offensive to prove American staying power in Asia. It marked a 180-degree turn from where the White House had begun three years earlier.
The fall offensive began with the long-awaited passage of the Korea-U.S. FTA (KORUS), an agreement of major economic importance. After years of accumulated opportunity costs, in October, the administration finally pushed the agreement forward and arranged for South Korean President Lee Myun-bak to be in Washington for the occasion of its passage.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton framed the new approach in her November “America’s Pacific Century” speech, wherein she declared the Administration’s “Asia Pivot.”1 President Obama gave the approach authority and economic substance at APEC, where the U.S. secured a game-changing commitment from Japan to join the Transpacific Partnership trade pact (TPP).
The President then embarked on his third visit to the Asia Pacific. In Australia, he announced new training rotations of up to 2,500 U.S. Marines through Australia’s northern shore, a move with obvious implications for the security of our allies and sea lanes, and in Indonesia, he became the first American president to participate in the East Asian Summit (EAS). At the EAS meeting of 18 regional leaders, President Obama raised the importance of maritime security and freedom of navigation and “expressed strong opposition to the threat or use of force by any party to advance its territorial or maritime claims or interfere in legitimate economic activity”2—thereby tying American interests to regional concerns about China.
For her part, Secretary Clinton headed to Manila to commemorate the 60th anniversary of the U.S.-Philippines Mutual Defense Treaty (MDT)—and then on to America’s other treaty ally in Southeast Asia, Thailand. In Manila Bay, she signed a reaffirmation of the U.S.-Philippines MDT on the deck of a U.S. Navy destroyer and essentially declared America ready to “fight” for the Philippines. She also announced the dispatch to Manila of the second (of what will likely be four) refurbished coast guard cutters.
En route to Indonesia, President Obama phoned long-suffering Burmese human rights icon Aung San Suu Kyi to get her blessing for a Burma visit from Secretary Clinton.
Clinton arrived in Burma by the end of November, meeting Suu Kyi and the Burmese president and beginning a careful, “action for action” process of normalization that could have major implications for the U.S. strategic position in the region. The Chinese have long taken advantage of Burma’s isolation from the U.S. If Burmese political reform proves to be real, it will offer an opportunity for the U.S. to reassert itself there. It will also remove a roadblock in America’s relationship with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) with which it has long disagreed on Burma. A democratic Burma would tip the scales in ASEAN—a hodgepodge of governing systems—in favor of democracy, a state of play that improves the sustainability of American engagement.This is a preview only. To read the full article click on the links below to purchase this issue or subscribe:
Walter Lohman is Director of The Heritage Foundation’s Asian Studies Center. Prior to joining Heritage in 2006, Walter was Executive Director and Senior Vice President of the U.S.-ASEAN Business Council. He has also worked on the staff of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee under Senator Jesse Helms (R-NC) and in the office of Senator John McCain (R-AZ).
- 1. Hillary Rodham Clinton, “America’s Pacific Century,” Remarks at the East-West Center, Honolulu, Hawaii, November 10, 2011, http://www.state.gov/secretary/rm/2011/11/176999.htm.
- 2. White House, Office of the Press Secretary, “Fact Sheet: East Asia Summit,” November 19, 2011, http://www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/2011/11/19/fact-sheet-east-asia-summit.