With congressonal midterm elections due this year, Obama's room for manouvring might be limited
Stability in the international order is facing challenges in various regions, such as the Asia-Pacific region and the Middle East. To maintain peace and stability, a policy of forward engagement in these regions by the United States, the only superpower, is still essential.
However, US President Barack Obama’s plan to focus more on Asia – a strategic pivot of US diplomacy and security policy more toward the Asia-Pacific region – has moved by fits and starts while the Obama administration is preoccupied with handling Middle East affairs.
With his weak domestic political foundation, can Obama reshape his foreign policy? Various difficult issues await him ahead of his trip to several Asian countries scheduled for April.
The Obama administration’s diplomatic limbo is epitomised by his Syria policy. The civil war in Syria has killed at least 100,000 people. Last summer, Obama announced a plan to launch a military strike against Syria, on the grounds that the administration of President Bashar Assad had used chemical weapons. At the same time, he took the extremely unusual step of asking Congress to approve the military strike. His decision to have Congress share the burden of launching an attack on Syria gave his presidential prestige a black eye.
However, the US pressure did produce a result. Before Congress was to vote on a resolution to approve the military attack, the Assad administration announced it would abandon its chemical weapons arsenal. The military strike was averted, and Assad was allowed to stay in power.
Neighbouring countries of Syria that oppose the Assad administration, and anti-government forces in Syria upbraided Obama over this “change of heart,” feeding distrust of the Obama administration. Obama himself probably thinks he made a miscalculation on this issue.
On the issue of Iran’s nuclear programme, Obama took the bold step of holding direct dialogue with new Iranian President Hassan Rouhani. The United States has since started negotiations with Iran, together with several other countries concerned, on the Iran nuclear issue. However, the future direction of these negotiations remains unclear because strong opposition to them remains within the US Congress.
Most of the US troops dispatched to Afghanistan are scheduled to withdraw from that country by the end of this year. As US forces have already pulled out of Iraq, the United States is expected to put a tentative end to its war on terrorism, which has lasted for more than a decade since the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on US soil.
War fatigue in US society has generated a tendency among the public to dislike US intervention and engagement in other countries’ affairs. This tendency to focus on domestic issues has also negatively affected Obama’s foreign policy.
Obama is being forced to pay careful consideration to Congress, since his administration cannot make policy decisions as it would like because the ruling Democratic Party maintains a majority in the Senate but the Republican Party controls the House of Representatives.
The Republican Party has continuously been on the offensive against the administration. Last year, the party thoroughly blocked the implementation of the Affordable Care Act, dubbed Obamacare, which Obama put into effect during his first term in office, resisting it even to the point of causing a partial shutdown of government functions in October.
Obama’s public approval rating briefly fell below 40 per cent, his lowest ever.
With a congressional midterm election set for November, it is certain that the Republicans will intensify their confrontational stance even further. Congressional management will be made more difficult for Obama. One cause for concern is that Obama’s diplomatic courses of action may be narrowed down.
Yet tension is only escalating in the Asia-Pacific region as China attempts to change the status quo by force. The situation in North Korea is also becoming ever more uncertain. We hope Obama will seriously tackle his diplomatic policy with emphasis placed on Asia.
The challenges the United States must tackle are obvious.
One, in cooperation with its friends and allies in the region, is to hold back China’s expansionism, which deviates from international norms, as seen in its unilateral announcement of an air defence identification zone in the East China Sea.
The Obama administration has already worked out plans for boosting its navy ships in the Asia-Pacific region from the current 50 per cent of the total US fleet to 60 per cent by 2020. The administration also plans to newly dispatch an additional 800 army troops to South Korea to boost its forces stationed there.
In the economic field, negotiations on the conclusion of the Trans-Pacific Partnership accord, which will create a new free-trade zone in the Asia-Pacific region with the United States and Japan taking the central roles, have entered the final stage.
If the military plans or the trade accord, or both, become reality, they will have a strong restraining effect on China’s moves to seek hegemony in the region.
On the other hand, China’s President Xi Jinping told Obama, “The vast Pacific Ocean has enough space for two large countries like the United States and China”, calling for forging a new type of great-power relationship.
Xi’s remarks, made during their summit talks in June, are thought to indicate a scheme for dividing the Asia-Pacific region in two, and having the United States effectively approve the expansion of China’s sphere of influence in the western Pacific.
It is worrisome that certain voices within the US government seem to call for the country to side with China’s scheme of forging a new type of relationship between the two. Such calls are probably made in consideration of the two countries’ mutual economic dependence.
Few countries – let alone US allies such as Japan, South Korea, Australia and the Philippines – would be willing to accept a new international order led by China in place of the United States.
We hope Washington makes a cautious response.