Obama Plays Long Game in Building Asia-Pacific Influence

No matter how many times President Barack Obama insists the U.S. is committed to being a Pacific power, the skeptics remain unconvinced.

Yesterday, he tried again, saying the U.S. has an “ironclad” commitment to its allies and that “American leadership in the Asia-Pacific will always be a fundamental focus of my foreign policy.”

With little more than 26 months left in his presidency, that reassurance may offer America’s allies scant comfort. To cement the Asian rebalancing that he ordered three years ago, the president stressed the long-term nature of the U.S. role in the Pacific.

“Generations of Americans have served and died in the Asia-Pacific so that the people of the region might live free,” Obama said in a speech at the University of Queensland in Brisbane, Australia. “So no one should ever question our resolve or our commitment to our allies.”

Nearly 80,000 American GIs were stationed in Brisbane at the peak of World War II, one sign that the U.S. Pacific role is anchored in history. And the president made his remarks on a university campus to a crowd of about 1,500, including many students who will live in a world shaped by current U.S. policy.

If similar presidential vows had been heard before, this time the president added an appeal tailored to the young. Obama underscored the need for action on climate change, saying the region -- including its low-lying island states -- are among the most vulnerable to the effects of a warming planet.

Next Generation

Fighting climate change “cannot be the work of government alone,” Obama said, adding that “citizens, especially the next generation” need to make their voices heard to avoid seeing Australia ravaged by more frequent droughts and wildfires.

The president’s climate remarks were striking, too, since Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott, the host of the Group of 20 summit Obama is attending, has expressed skepticism about scientific findings on the subject. The president’s call for young Australians to act drew repeated, sustained applause.

“It was as much a speech to peoples, as it was to nations, an acknowledgment that states do not alone solve our global problems such as on carbon emissions,” said Elvin Lim, an associate professor of political science at the National University of Singapore. “In doing this, Obama was playing the long game of winning hearts and minds.”

Devoting Time

That has been part of the administration’s strategy for some time. In April, the White House scheduled a presidential speech at the University of Malaysia during a brief visit to the country, the first trip by an American president to Malaysia since Lyndon Johnson in 1966 during the Vietnam War.

Devoting scarce presidential time to a country like Malaysia brings little domestic political benefit. Obama’s personal narrative -- the son of a Muslim father who spent part of his youth in Indonesia -- gives him special appeal to the region’s young people.

At a stop in Myanmar during this trip, Obama held a town-hall session with young people from members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. He also announced an expansion of a young leaders’ program for the region, similar to a program in Africa.

Even if no immediate diplomatic achievements could be claimed, the president is trying to sow the seeds of strong future U.S. ties to emerging nations.

The U.S. competition for those links is China, which is projecting its growing economic influence across Asia and Africa as well.

Strategy Ambiguity

“Skeptics of the rebalancing strategy are right to point out the ambiguity of the strategy,” Lim said. “The strategy, for it to work, must itself be ambiguous, and fluidly adaptive, not least because no country in this region wants to be forced to choose between Washington and Beijing.”

While he’s refrained from directly criticizing China on this trip, which included a stop in Beijing, Obama listed several regional trends opposed by the U.S. that have been points of tension with China: support for state-owned enterprises, cybertheft of trade secrets, the pursuit of geographical spheres of influence abroad and domestic repression at home.

Russell Trood, an adjunct professor in defense and security at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, who attended the speech, said Obama has done about all he can to give verbal reassurance to American allies.

“It’s difficult to know what more he could say,” said Trood, who attended the speech. “It was certainly a strong argument for America’s role.”

Lasting Pivot

The U.S. pivot toward Asia probably won’t end with Obama’s presidency, Lim said. Over the next five years, nearly half of the economic growth occurring outside the U.S. will be in Asia, according to the White House.

And China is simply getting so big that any president likely will be drawn to devote his attention to the region.

China’s economy has roughly tripled in size in real terms since 2002, according to data compiled by Bloomberg. Commodities such as steel, iron ore, copper and oil rise and fall with Chinese orders.

The People’s Liberation Army ranks behind only the U.S. military in annual spending. And after three decades of absorbing foreign investment, Chinese companies such as Wanxiang Group Corp., Huawei Technology Co. Ltd. and China Petroleum & Chemical Corp., also known as Sinopec, now are going out on the global stage.

“China’s rise, as Obama’s speech acknowledges, will call for a sustained U.S. engagement with the region,” Lim said, “whether or not there is a domestic stomach for it.”

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