Obama’s legacy in Asia

After six years of major foreign policy effort, it is clear Obama failed in his Pivot to Asia.

G20 Summit in Hangzhou
US president Barack Obama and Chinese president Xi Jinping shake hands during their meeting at the West Lake State Guest House in Hangzhou, China [EPA]

“[B]y almost every measure, America is a better, stronger place than it was when we started,” declared US president Barack Hussein Obama in his emotional farewell speech. “After all, we remain the wealthiest, most powerful, and most respected nation on Earth.”

The outgoing president wasted no time to highlight his signature achievements, from preventing a global economic depression and the collapse of American car industry, to overseeing decent economic recovery and marriage equality to the establishment of the foundations of a truly universal healthcare system. 

On foreign policy, he highlighted his administration’s broadly successful efforts to “open up a new chapter with the Cuban people, shut down Iran’s nuclear weapons programme without firing a shot, take out the mastermind of 9/11 [Osama bin Laden].” After all, unconditional dialogue, economic engagement, and judicious use of force stood at the centre of the Obama doctrine.

Without a doubt, his signature foreign policy initiative was the “Pivot to Asia” (P2A) strategy, a systematic and gradual effort at decoupling American power from the troubled regions of the Near East towards the bustling and booming economies of the Asia-Pacific region. But six years into the P2A policy, the US remains bogged down in the Middle East, confronts an ever more assertive China, and is suffering an unprecedented setback in relations with key allies in Asia, such as the Philippines. 

Charming the enemies

“As the world’s fastest-growing region … the Asia Pacific is critical to achieving my highest priority, and that’s creating jobs and opportunity for the American people”, Obama declared in a high-profile speech before the Parliament of Australia, which officially commenced his P2A policy. “[T]he United States will play a larger and long-term role in shaping this region and its future, by upholding core principles and in close partnership with our allies and friends.”

Obama promised to underwrite regional prosperity and peace by expanding economic and diplomatic engagement with friends and rivals, while stepping up military commitment to troubled allies in the region.

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He regularly attended the regional multilateral fora, such as the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) and East Asia summits, appointed a permanent ambassador to the ASEAN, invited Indonesia to the newly formed G20 elite club, and held an intimate summit with both China and Southeast Asian nations at Sunnylands ranch in California.

As the first US “Pacific president”, he visited Asian states, which were also his first official overseas destinations, more than any of his predecessors. True to his inaugural promise to “extend a hand, if [enemies] are willing to unclench [their] fist,” Obama oversaw successful normalisation of ties with Communist Vietnam and the military government in Myanmar, while stepping up engagement with Laos and Cambodia. 

Dealing with the Dragon

Obama’s conciliatory rhetoric and diplomatic outreach broadly explains the revival in American global soft power. Under his administration, the US saw a considerable uptick in its approval ratings, with almost seven out of 10 people in the world expressing a favourable view of the US, compared to only five in 10 during the George W Bush administration. The number wascloser to nine out of 10 in places such as the Philippines.

Yet, Obama largely failed to win over friends in Beijing, which began to more aggressively to challenge American hegemony in Asia. To be fair, the two superpowers made commendable steps towards a consensus on key international concerns, such as climate change and the North Korean nuclear threat. But they ended up on a collision course in the South and East China Seas, where Beijing is re-asserting long-dormant territorial and maritime claims.

To the consternation of American allies, however, the Obama administration largely failed to prevent China from dominating contested land features and natural resources in adjacent waters. In fact, Obama largely stood aside as the Asian powerhouse built massive artificial islands and military structures across the South China Sea. More recently, China even dared to seize an American drone within Philippine waters, in violation of international law, while deploying advanced weapons system to its artificial islands. American naval hegemony in Asia has come under question like never before.

Obama’s key economic initiative, the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) agreement, which aimed at containing China’s economic preponderance, has miserably floundered, with Trump promising to nix it on his first day of office. With no major economic carrot on the table, the US under Obama has struggled to turn the tide in the region, as regional states become increasingly dependent on Chinese capital, technology and markets.

Prickly allies

Meanwhile, disagreements over human rights issues saw a rapid deterioration of bilateral ties between Washington and its two Southeast Asian treaty allies, Thailand (under a military government) and the Philippines, which have gravitated towards China.

Amid his scorched earth “war on drugs”, Philippine president Rodrigo Duterte has threatened to sever military cooperation with the US, unless the latter ends its criticism of his human rights record. On multiple occasions, the tough-talking Filipino leader even cussed at top American leaders, including Obama himself. In fact, Manila has begun to cancel joint military exercises and maritime patrols with its sole treaty ally.

Meanwhile, the Duterte administration has moved ahead with negotiating military agreements with China and Russia. Perturbed by American criticism of its human rights record, the Thai military regime has also moved closer to the Chinese orbit. All of a sudden, the US can no longer take its regional allies’ loyalty for granted.

Obama started with a vision of a revitalised American strategic position in Asia, but largely failed to put substance to his soaring rhetoric. If anything, his successors, particularly Donald Trump, will confront a more assertive China, more prickly and independent-minded allies, and continued threat of all-out war in flashpoints, such as the South China Sea. 

Richard Javad Heydarian is a specialist in Asian geopolitical/economic affairs and author of Asia’s New Battlefield: The USA, China, and the Struggle for the Western Pacific.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.