When Hillary Clinton joined Barack Obama’s “Team of Rivals” in 2009 she announced her foreign policy priorities by flying straight to Tokyo, Jakarta, Seoul and Beijing. This realignment from George W. Bush’s adventures in Iraq grew into her “pivot” to Asia, and Obama’s “rebalancing” and, eventually, a region-wide hedge against Chinese aggression.
In contrast, when John Kerry took over as Secretary of State in 2013, he flew first to London, Europe and five cities in the Middle East. More than half of the 57 trips he has made in the job have been to the Middle East, according to Lowy Institute figures. Just one-fifth have been to Asia.
Kerry’s turn away from Clinton’s pivot wouldn’t have mattered so much if President Obama had followed through on the rebalancing commitments he made in the Australian Parliament in November 2011. But this has not been the case, as his own advisers explained to the New York Times last week: “Aides say he has spent more time on Iran than any other foreign policy issue except Afghanistan and terrorism.”
Some leaders and policy makers across the region and especially in Canberra are looking forward to a Republican presidential candidate, like Jeb Bush, despite the misadventures of his brother. Others think Clinton’s nomination, perhaps next week, cannot come soon enough.
“The rebalance is Clinton’s signal foreign policy achievement as Secretary of State, she’s invested in it,” says Michael Fullilove, executive director of the Lowy Institute. Later this month Fullilove will debate with the point man at the State Department, Danny Russell, and argue that leaders in Asia will not take the post-Clinton pivot seriously until Obama makes the case for it at home.
But the talk of flagging administration leadership and American decline raises an intriguing question: in the contest with China for regional pulling power, why is the United States still winning hands down?
Around Asia change is afoot. The generals in Myanmar have dumped their Beijing sponsors, as have voters in Sri Lanka. The people of Japan and India have chosen strident nationalists who can “stand up to China”. Vietnam is no longer fighting American forces but joining them for exercises. The Philippines, after kicking out American bases, is harassing the US Navy to return. All of these nations and half a dozen others are moving rapidly closer to the US and to each other.
I asked Bates Gill, director of the US Studies Centre at Sydney University, if he could list the nations in the region that had not deepened relations with the US at the expense of China since Obama announced his rebalancing. He came up with just Laos, Cambodia and North Korea.
“America is clearly the welcome external player throughout most of the region, where its military and economic power remains unrivalled, says Gill, an expert on Chinese security policy. “These have been a strong four years.”
It turns out that the strategic logic of a more muscular China has overwhelmed the impact of any individual leader. Take for example Julia Gillard, who once called for a more “independent” foreign policy, but ended up making Australia the fulcrum of the US pivot. Bill Shorten’s Labor Opposition would make a similar transition in government, too.
The learning curves of American leaders are instructive.
President Obama opened with a promise to “extend a hand if you are willing to unclench your fist“. He was met with intransigent non-cooperation, if not humiliation, on his first state visit to Beijing.
Obama summed up six years of bruising diplomacy in a candid interview with The Economist, which should be pasted above the desk on every new leader’s wall: “One thing I will say about China, though, is you also have to be pretty firm with them, because they will push as hard as they can until they meet resistance. They’re not sentimental, and they are not interested in abstractions, and so simple appeals to international norms are insufficient.”
Clinton arrived in Beijing in 2009 offering generous concessions on human rights. She was quickly forced to add a “hedge” component to her strategy of engagement when her hosts pocketed those concessions, pressed her for much more, and brazenly intercepted a US surveillance ship in international waters. Kevin Rudd’s self-described “brutal realism” on China was an important element in her education.
Kerry arrived with a spirit of goodwill, as Obama and Clinton had. Alluding to his concern that a pivot to Asia might provoke an adverse reaction from China, he said: “Every action has its reaction. It’s the old — you know, it’s not just the law of physics; it’s the law of politics and diplomacy.”
China rushed to fill the apparent US leadership vacuum in the East China Sea, climaxing when Chinese frigates locked their missile fire radars on a Japanese helicopter and vessel.
The world would be a safer place if Kerry had learned as fast as Clinton did. Or if Obama had been as tough, consistent and focused with his follow through.
China would not be building “a great wall of sand” in the South China Sea, as the US Pacific Commander colourfully put it last week, if John Kerry had continued Clinton’s powerful regional diplomacy and Obama had not lost interest.
The US would not have failed to hold China to global standards with its Asia Infrastructure Investment Bank, raising the prospect that China could use it or future institutions as strategic tools. Obama’s military and economic rebalancing would not look so precariously unbalanced if he’d mounted a more convincing economic argument for his Trans-Pacific Partnership on Capitol Hill.
At each flash of weakness, however, Chinese leaders demonstrate a grasp of strategic logic that is as patchy as John Kerry’s. The harder they push, the harder their neighbours push back, and the more attractive American power becomes. This is why, in the Great Game for leadership in the Asia Pacific, an indecisive and distracted America is winning hands down.
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