Asian countries are now saying of President Obama exactly what they used to say about President Bush: Despite the rhetorical commitment to Asia, U.S. foreign policy has gotten swallowed up in the Middle East. The FT:
Although President Barack Obama is due to visit the region in April, several Asia governments have complained privately that the administration has become distracted in the Middle East and has left the way open for China to pursue its claims with greater confidence.
In response to allies’ concerns, the Obama Administration has opened up the rhetorical spigot:
“There are growing concerns that this pattern of behaviour in the South China Sea reflects incremental effort by China to assert control over the area,” Danny Russel, assistant secretary of state for East Asia said last week at a hearing. China had “created uncertainty, insecurity and instability in the region”. Mr Russel urged China to “clarify or adjust its nine-dash line claim to bring it in accordance with the international law of the sea”.
In a separate statement, Evan Medeiros, the Asia director at the White House national security council, warned China against declaring an air defence identification zone for the South China Sea, following its announcement in December of new rules for airspace in the East China Sea.“We have been very clear with the Chinese that we would see that [the establishment of a new air zone] as a provocative and destabilising development that would result in changes in our presence and military posture in the region,” Mr Medeiros told Kyodo, the Japanese news agency.
Unfortunately, this kind of talk carries less and less weight. China’s assertiveness and Japan’s increasingly forceful response reflect a belief in both Beijing and Tokyo that Washington isn’t dependably engaged. This isn’t just a question of visits or sternly-worded communiqués and pronouncements to the press, but also of defense spending plans. Asia gets more dangerous as the perception rises that the United States is distracted and disengaged.This isn’t a problem about Asia vs. the Middle East or which quarter of the world the administration is favoring with its pivot this month. It’s a problem with the disconnect between Administration rhetoric and its follow-up. People ask themselves: Does America mean what it says—or more specifically, does the Obama Administration mean what it says? The miserable Syria “red line” disaster—whether you think the President was wrong to draw a red line in the first place or think the line was a good idea but the flubbed threats were a mistake—shredded the Administration’s credibility around the world. That makes everybody uneasy and nervous, whether we are “pivoting” in their direction or not. Everything this Administration says now, sadly, sounds like another “red line” in Syria.Furthermore, it’s not as if the Administration can solve its foreign policy problems by pivoting this way or that. Asia needs more American attention. So does the Middle East. So, as the mess in Ukraine has made clear, does Europe. What the Administration really needs to do is pivot toward the world and pivot toward a serious and consistent foreign policy in which it says what it means and means what it says.Back home, the Administration suffers some similar problems. It has pivoted toward the economy more times than it has pivoted toward Asia. At home as well as abroad, Obama’s enemies don’t really fear him and his friends don’t really trust him. Whether you sympathize with the Administration’s basic political philosophy or not, this is bad for the country at home and can be extremely dangerous abroad.President Obama still has almost three years in the White House. It’s time for him to stop pivoting and start getting grounded.