Obama’s Tilt to Asia: Too Little, Too Late

Donald Trump is encountering a fusillade of criticism alleging that his approach to Asia is creating a vacuum that will be eagerly filled by Beijing. But those making this argument would be much more honest if they acknowledged that part of the blame lies with Trump’s predecessor as well.

That Barack Obama deserves some censure was made plain in a recent Washington Post interview with Max Baucus, the immediate past US ambassador in China, who offered a remarkably critical appraisal of Obama’s leadership skills and policy toward Beijing. Indeed, his remarks underscore long-time criticisms regarding Obama’s leadership shortcomings, as well as the real problem his administration faced in matching fine words and good intentions with concrete foreign policy actions.

One of the complaints Baucus registered concerns the fate of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), the Obama administration’s project to build a US-centric trade bloc in East Asia that would have brought together 12 countries and nearly 40 percent of the global economy. The TPP was a key component to Obama’s signature foreign policy initiative – variously known as the “pivot” or the strategic “rebalance” – aimed at shoring up the US presence in a region that is increasingly under Chinese sway.

As Singapore’s prime minister Lee Hsien Loong declared last year to US business executives, ratification of the ambitious trade and investment agreement was widely seen in Asia as “a litmus test of your credibility and seriousness of purpose.” TPP was denounced by both major candidates during the recent US presidential campaign and officially torpedoed by the new Trump administration. But even as the agreement was being negotiated, there were widespread suspicions about whether the Obama White House had the political gumption to see through the Congressional approval process.

Baucus makes clear that Obama himself deserves part of the blame for the TPP debacle. The newspaper quotes him as saying: “The [Obama] administration didn’t have the same zeal, the single-minded, mongoose-tenacity to get the thing passed that [US Trade Representative] Mike Froman and several others in the bus had. The president didn’t get involved nearly as much as I thought he could and should.”

Criticism of Obama’s leadership skills are nothing new. Leon E. Panetta, the Democratic Party’s elder statesman who served as his second Pentagon chief, highlighted this inadequacy in a recent memoir, particularly what he calls the president’s “most conspicuous weakness” – “a frustrating reticence to engage his opponents and rally support for his cause.” Obama, he added, sometimes lacks fire, preferring instead to rely “on the logic of a law professor rather than the passion of a leader.” As a result, Obama “avoids the battle, complains, and misses opportunities.”

Just before the memoir’s release, a senior Obama administration official conceded Panetta’s point, acknowledging that the president’s leadership style was “much more that of the lawyer than the CEO.” Too often, and on too many important policy issues, Obama conceived of the presidency as an exercise in thought leadership rather than the engine for the messy politicking a pluralist democracy requires.

As a Bloomberg View columnist summed up on Obama’s last day in office, “to make policy work, you need politics. And politics is not about white papers. It is about making unsatisfactory deals and calling in favors from your friends, friends you usually made by helping them out with an unsatisfactory deal of their own. An intellectual approach to policy-making that tried to bypass those unseemly details, it turned out, didn't necessarily result in good policy.”

Obama’s frequent detachment from the policy process led to a huge disjuncture between his promise on shifting strategic focus to Asia – a region where the president once said “the action’s going to be” and “Here, we see the future” – and his actual accomplishments on this score.

Unveiled to much fanfare (here and here) in late 2011, the Obama administration placed great rhetorical emphasis on the Asian pivot. In early 2013, Tom Donilon, the US national Security advisor, proclaimed that “when it comes to the Asia-Pacific, the United States is ‘all in’.” Later that year, his successor, Susan Rice, insisted the pivot was “a cornerstone of the Obama administration’s foreign policy.” A few months before the administration’s term ended, she emphasized the president’s “profound commitment to the Asia Rebalance.”

But for all of these professions, Baucus states that the administration was never able to devise a coherent, sustainable policy for dealing with a rising China: “We’re much too ad hoc. We don’t seem to have a long-term strategy, and that’s very much to our disadvantage.”

Indeed, many long questioned Obama’s determination to see through not only TPP’s implementation but also the buildup of military forces necessary to contest a more assertive China. Just months before launching the pivot, he undermined his own credibility by signing into law the 2011 Budget Control Act and then did nothing in subsequent years to relieve the sharp pressures it imposed on the US defense budget.

In March 2014, for example, the Pentagon’s acquisitions chief acknowledged that “Right now, the pivot is being looked at again, because candidly it can’t happen [due to budget pressures].” At the same time, a Japanese official told the New York Times, “If there’s real rebalancing, it is hard to find.” Even more trenchant, the newspaper also quotes a long-time Asia hand who worked in the first Obama administration as saying that pivot was “ill-conceived and bungled in its implementation.”

As a consequence of Obama’s failure to back up his rhetoric with the necessary fiscal resources, the US military currently confronts a severe readiness deficit at a time when Chinese military strength is noticeably increasing.

The US Navy was slated to play a central role in the pivot, yet two-thirds of its mainstay F/A-18 strike fighters are currently grounded due to lack of spare parts or maintenance backlogs. Overall, more than half of the service’s aircraft inventory – including fighters, transport, patrol and reconnaissance planes as well as helicopters – are presently out of service.

The US Army reports that only three of its 58 combat brigade teams are capable of immediate deployment, while the US Air Force states that it is “now able to keep only half of our force at an acceptable level of readiness.” Astoundingly, US military leaders recently testified that President Obama had never personally discussed this readiness crisis with them.

Donald Trump may well be hastening the day when American leadership in East Asia is eclipsed by China. But if that were to happen, one should not lose sight of how the previous president played his hand.

David J. Karl is president of the Asia Strategy Initiative, an analysis and advisory firm, and former director of studies at the Pacific Council on International Policy. He can be reached via Twitter @DavidJKarl