Obama Redux in Asia

Carrying the Obama administration’s baggage back to the White House

By: David J. Karl

If personnel is policy, or at least the perception of policy, then Joe Biden confronts a significant challenge in Asia. He has entered the White House promising to restore America’s global engagement and repair its alliances around the world, while also being tough-minded with China. But this will prove daunting in Asia when so many on his foreign policy team are associated with the Obama administration’s “strategic pivot” toward the region – an initiative whose rhetoric simultaneously aroused Beijing’s suspicions while its actual track record largely failed to impress others.

Bilahari Kausikan, the former senior Singaporean diplomat widely regarded in East Asia, recently highlighted this predicament when he argued that the Obama administration had little grasp of power dynamics in Asia.

“Listening to Barack Obama speaking about "pivoting" to Asia was a pleasure. It was flattering when he made time to attend ASEAN meetings. The Trans-Pacific Partnership, or TPP, was a substantive achievement,” he said. “But some aspects of Obama's foreign policy were terrible. Obama had little stomach for exercising power. There was even reason to wonder whether his administration, particularly in its second term, really understood international relations. It is not all about soft power.”

Kausikan went on to warn that President Biden “will carry all the baggage of the Obama administration with him to the White House. Obama's vice president cannot disavow all responsibility for what happened on Obama's watch.”

This theme has been echoed by others. A year ago, an anonymous Japanese official (almost certainly with the approval of higher-ups in Tokyo) said: “While President Obama was talking about possible cooperation with China on global issues in a bid to make a responsible stakeholder out of a rival, Beijing was busy sending military ships to the Senkakus, muscling the Philippines out of Scarborough Shoal, and creating artificial islands in the South China Sea. Since the end of the Cold War, Japan had continuously warned the United States about China. For all of President Trump’s various shortcomings, it looks like Japan finally has someone in the White House who properly recognizes and appreciates the challenge.”

The official concluded that “Asian elites—in Taipei, Manila, Hanoi, New-Delhi—increasingly calculate that Trump’s unpredictable and transactional approach is a lesser evil compared to the danger of the United States going back to cajoling China to be a ‘responsible stakeholder.’”

Similarly, a long-time commentator on Asia observed that “Officials in Tokyo, Taipei, New Delhi, Singapore and other capitals have grown relatively comfortable with Trump and his tough approach on China. The prospect of a Biden presidency, by contrast, brings back uncomfortable memories of an Obama era that many Asian movers and shakers recall as unfocused and soft toward Beijing.”

What conclusions the Biden administration’s newly-minted officials have drawn about the efficacy of Obama-era policies are of obvious interest. Kurt M. Campbell, who is the Asia policy czar in the Biden White House, recently participated in a video conference about the prospects for US-China relations. He earlier served as Assistant Secretary of State for East Asia during Obama’s first term and was a key hand behind the “pivot.” After leaving government service, he even wrote a 350-page book detailing the pivot’s rationale and objectives. Curiously, the strategic lessons the pivot holds for Biden’s approach toward Asia in general, and China especially, were never addressed by Campbell and his co-panelists.

Given the alarming growth of Chinese military capabilities in recent years, especially in the important waterways of the South China Sea, it would have been useful to explore what effect the pivot, and in particular the Obama’s administration’s handling of the 2012 Scarborough Shoal crisis between China and the Philippines, has had on Beijing’s assessment of US deterrence credibility in the region.

Scarborough Shoal (above) lies about 320 km from Manila and is well within the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone as defined by international law. From April-June 2012, Chinese and Filipino maritime forces confronted each other in a serious standoff over sovereignty rights. Beijing blamed Washington’s “pivot” rhetoric for emboldening Manila’s resolve and the outbreak of military conflict was a real possibility, which in turn would have had implications for the 1951 US-Philippines mutual defense treaty.

Campbell played an important role in the US management of the standoff and he eventually brokered an agreement between the two sides that provided for the mutual withdrawal of maritime forces around the shoal. Following Manila’s disengagement, Beijing reneged on the deal and to this day remains in effective control of the area.

This outcome had a number of serious ramifications. As one Obama official subsequently put it, “there is no question that Beijing had scored a tactical victory at Manila’s expense by successfully seizing and occupying the disputed area.” The Financial Times reported on “the bitterness over what US officials saw as an exercise in bad faith by the Chinese side” and that the Obama administration concluded from the incident that “its efforts at deterrence [in the South China Sea] are having only limited impact.”

Yet for all of this, the administration’s response to China’s lack of good faith was tepid. As the Financial Times noted, “even though there is still considerable resentment over the way events in Scarborough Shoal unfolded, the Obama administration has shown no willingness to reopen the issue and push for a Chinese withdrawal.” Strangely, the incident is barely mentioned in Campbell’s book.

Chinese sources soon began to talk about a “Scarborough model” in which calibrated levels of maritime coercion could be used to annex contested territory and reshape the territorial status quo in East Asia. Beijing would go on to apply similar assertiveness against the Philippines again, as well as Japan, Malaysia, and Vietnam.

Finally, once Rodrigo Duterte became the Filipino leader, the crisis no doubt was a factor in his skepticism about Washington’s reliability as an alliance partner and his pursuit of a more accommodative line with Beijing. As one expert notes, “the US failure to support its ally in the Scarborough standoff also demonstrated to people like Duterte that he had no other option than to kowtow to China.”

It would have been illuminating in the video conference to hear Campbell give his account of the incident and elaborate on which lessons one should draw from it about Chinese strategic intentions and negotiating behavior. This is all the more since Campbell and his fellow panelists placed emphasis on the present need to restore trust between Washington and Beijing without ever considering what Chinese strategic intentions might actually be. Moreover, given the clampdown on dissenting policy views among Chinese elites, one wonders whether good-faith interlocutors, even if they exist with the foreign policy bureaucracy, are presently able to influence Beijing’s decision-making in a meaningful way.

One point Campbell did stress in the panel exchange merits further examination. As he sees it, the threat of climate change is so dangerous and far-reaching that it takes priority over all other items on the US-China bilateral agenda. During the presidential campaign, Joe Biden likewise asserted that climate change is an “existential threat” and the “number one issue facing humanity.” Now that he is in the Oval Office, he has signed a directive making the issue the “center of our national security and foreign policy.” And John Kerry, Obama’s last secretary of state who has been named as Biden’s cabinet-level climate envoy, has said the same thing and sees China’s cooperation as key in addressing the issue. Kerry’s appointment has drawn criticism on the grounds that such a posture will grant Beijing vital negotiating advantages. As a former Obama administration official was quoted as saying last month, “China’s diplomacy is a constant search for leverage, and Kerry will deliver a load of it in a wheelbarrow right to their front door every day.”

Similar criticism has also attached to Susan Rice, President Obama’s national security advisor who is now re-entering the White House as a top Biden staffer. When Rice’s name surfaced this past summer as a possible pick for Biden’s vice presidential running mate, Kausikan took to social media to register his protest. “Susan Rice would be a disaster,” he maintained. “She has very little interest in Asia, no stomach for competition, and thinks of foreign policy as humanitarian intervention.” He added: “She was among those who thought that the US should de-emphasize competition to get China’s cooperation on climate change, which is a fundamental misunderstanding of the nature of international relations.” In 2016, Rice reportedly barred the Pentagon from referring to the US-China relationship as “a great power competition.”

In the video conference, Campbell sought to dispel fears that the Biden team would trade important concessions in order to enlist Beijing in its global climate agenda. But one wonders how US allies and partners in Asia, already doubtful of US staying power vis-à-vis China and of the role Obama-era officials played in this state of affairs, will look upon this emphasis.

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 contacted via Twitter @davidjkarl.

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