What Obama Didn't Get Done in Asia

Obama boarding Air Force One after attending the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit in Beijing Photograph by Lintao Zhang/AP Photo

President Barack Obama’s recent visit to Asia has been described as a triumph by some observers, as well as by the administration itself. On the trip, which included meetings with leaders in China and Myanmar and appearances at two Asian regional organizations, the White House announced a climate agreement with Beijing that would commit the U.S. and China to meeting targets for cutting carbon emissions. It also announced further supposed breakthroughs. The U.S. and China agreed to a new system of notifying each other of military movements in the region, and they agreed to cut tariffs on some IT equipment. Obama also declared that the Pacific nations were close to concluding the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal.

The reality is harsher. The breakthroughs won in Asia will be impossible for Obama to implement. And the administration’s attempts to turn U.S. policy toward Asia, a strategy known as “the pivot,” or the “rebalance to Asia,” has actually made the economic and political situation in East Asia worse.

Each supposed success of the president’s trip is likely to unravel. The TPP is far from concluded, with serious gaps remaining in negotiations between the U.S. and Japan, primarily on issues related to agriculture. Even if the U.S. and Japan manage to agree, it will be almost impossible for Obama to pass the agreement through Congress. The president has spent little time trying to convince members of his own party to stand behind the accord. Many prominent Democrats have openly said they will not vote for it. And though the Republicans have historically been more supportive of trade, the Tea Party wing of the GOP is highly suspicious of trade agreements.

The climate deal and the other U.S.-China accords will also turn out to be mostly hot air. Although Obama used executive action to conclude the climate agreement, the incoming Congress, dominated by skeptics of global warming, is likely to do everything it can to water down the accord. The military agreement will not prevent either nation from continuing to build up forces in the region, while the proposed IT tariff reductions, though important, do not change the overall chill that has come over foreign investment in China.

Obama’s supposed breakthroughs in Myanmar will likely come to naught. Before Obama’s visit, Myanmar’s contentious political leaders, including Aung San Suu Kyi, held a conference designed to ensure that they all presented the same message to the American president, a message that Myanmar’s reforms are going smoothly. They immediately started squabbling again.

Four goals of the pivot to Asia were to foster a regional free trade agreement, to promote democracy in the most populous region of the globe, to reassure partners throughout Asia that the U.S. would remain committed to the region, and—though this goal was left unsaid— to contain China’s growing assertiveness.

These promises have not been kept, and the visit to Asia only underscored the distance between Obama’s rhetoric and his results. If the TPP does not pass, the White House has no backup trade agenda in the region. (China has a regional trade pact it is pushing in place of the TPP.) Meanwhile, in Northeast Asia, South Korean and Japanese leaders and top officials wonder why, if Obama has made Asia a priority, they have seen so little of the president and senior U.S. cabinet members.

As for containing China’s assertiveness, the policy failed here, too. Several senior Asian officials say that the administration appears focused on other parts of the world, leaving them unclear about America’s position on disputes in Asian waters. The People’s Republic has interpreted Obama’s position as weakness. Since the late 2000s, China increasingly has tried to mark out what it claims as its territory in the South China Sea and East China Sea; China’s claims encompass nearly the entire South China Sea. Reinforcing the appearance of weakness, Obama on his visit stayed mum on the vilification of him by China’s state media. Unlike previous American presidents, he said almost nothing about China’s human rights record. Meanwhile, a confident Chinese President Xi Jinping issued numerous de facto warnings that China would become the dominant power in Asia.

Obama’s East Asia policy has also done little to promote democracy and human rights. Since the late 2000s, much of Asia has regressed politically. Thailand’s elected government was overthrown by a coup in May, and opposition parties in both Malaysia and Cambodia were allegedly cheated of election victories in 2013. China has stifled Hong Kong’s desire for freer elections, and the Xi administration has launched China’s biggest crackdown in decades on activists, writers, and artists. Myanmar’s highly touted reforms, which included freeing Aung San Suu Kyi, have gone backward since last year. The Myanmar government is once again locking up journalists; the military has overseen a constitution that preserves its power; and Buddhist paramilitary groups—some with alleged ties to the army—roam Myanmar, harassing Muslims.

In Myanmar, Obama spoke out for the rights of the Muslim minority, but he accepted promises from the country’s leadership that the 2015 elections would go forward smoothly, despite worries that the army is actively working to undermine the vote. In China, Obama ignored the protests in Hong Kong and the growing crackdown on civil society. Nor did Obama take the opportunity to use the trip to highlight the continuing trial of Malaysian opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim, who faces five years in jail on charges of sodomy that Human Rights Watch has called a “travesty of the country’s criminal justice system.”

The Obama administration’s policies are not solely to blame for this democratic regression, but they have played a part. In many Asian nations, the U.S. embrace of—and rhetorical support for—authoritarian leaders has given these men and women added legitimacy. In Malaysia, the White House has issued only the mildest of statements as the government allegedly fixed elections and cracked down on the opposition. The administration refused to cancel the prestigious Cobra Gold U.S.-Thailand joint exercises, even after the May 2014 coup, a sign interpreted by many Thai leaders that business will continue as usual with the United States.

Obama’s likely successor as 2016 Democratic presidential nominee—and one of the architects of Obama’s pivot—has tried to distance herself from his Asia policy, or simply to ignore holes in the White House’s strategy. In her memoir, Hard Choices, Hillary Clinton writes at length about her personal efforts to secure the freedom of a Chinese dissident, Chen Guangcheng, and repeatedly emphasizes her advocacy of rights in Asia, although Chen’s case stood in stark contrast to the administration’s general see-no-evil strategy in China. In the book, and in interviews, Clinton still holds up Myanmar as a stunning success story, ignoring the clouds that loom over the country’s transition.

    Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.