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Pivot to Asia
Bad Optics

The optics of the grand finale of President Obama’s trip to Asia left something to be desired. The Wall Street Journal:

Over a three-day summit that ended Thursday, leaders from the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations…reiterated calls for compliance with international law in handling territorial disputes with China, using a moderate tone that Beijing prefers.

Even the Philippines, which filed the arbitration case against China that yielded the ruling in July at a tribunal at The Hague, failed to mention the matter during a high-profile meeting on Thursday that included leaders from Asia and the U.S. In the closed-door meeting, U.S. President Barack Obama and Japan Prime Minister Shinzo Abe urged Beijing to comply with the verdict, which rejected Chinese claims to historic and economic rights across a wide swath of the South China Sea.

Asean’s reticence in discussing the ruling contrasted with Mr. Obama’s outspokenness on a legal case that Beijing has repeatedly denounced. Chinese diplomats seized on the divergence in rhetoric, claiming that the U.S. was trying to play up an issue that Asean has already moved on from.

The reason for the Philippines’ decision has a lot to do with its volatile new President, Rodrigo Duterte, an instinctive, brash populist with a taste for anti-American rhetoric. As the Wall Street Journal elsewhere noted, however, Duterte himself seems unsure of what to do with his victory in the arbitration court in the Hague, which was initiated by his predecessor:

He could insist that he will only negotiate with Beijing on the basis of the verdict of the arbitration panel at The Hague, which excoriated Beijing for building artificial islands in The Philippines’ exclusive economic zone. Or he could use the verdict as leverage in talks over sharing resources—fisheries and energy—off the Philippines coast. Or he could cave completely and set the verdict aside in hopes that this will unlock a wave of Chinese investment, particularly in his home region of Mindanao.

ASEAN often ends up prevaricating in its final pronouncements, so we shouldn’t read too much geopolitical significance into yet one more milquetoast statement from the organization. Nevertheless, for an Obama Administration seeking to cement its middling legacy in Asia, China crowing over a diplomatic setback for the United States cannot be a pleasant sight.

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  • Kevin

    Duarte would be a fool to provoke China over the nex four months – he knows that no matter what Obama says or what redlines he draws, Obama will leave him in the lurch when China pushes back.

    • rheddles

      Doesn’t matter what Duarte does. China likely to strike before elections or inauguration. That’s probably the debate going on in Peking.

  • Beauceron

    What are you talking about.

    Obama has been one of the greatest presidents in our history. He has eclipsed Lincoln and Washington.

    We will have airports named after him. There will be statues around the country.

    Seriously. The people who rule us make these kinds of decisions– and our rulers adore Obama. You get no say.

    “Why Obama Will Go Down as One of the Greatest Presidents of All Time”

    “55 Reasons Obama Will Go Down As One Of Our Best Presidents”

    “5 Reasons Why Obama Will Be Regarded As One of the Best (& Least Appreciated) Presidents in History


    “Rolling Stone Named President Obama One Of America’s Most Historically Successful Presidents”
    And that’s just a small recent sampling. There’s lots of them.

    • Andrew Allison

      Nevertheless, history will not be kind to him. Sad that the first Black President turned out to be such an incompetent egomaniac. Hopefully, we won’t make a similar mistake with the first female one.

  • Andrew Allison

    Perhaps the world needs more leaders willing to call a spade a spade.

    • f1b0nacc1

      Well, they have already found a few other things to call him as well….perhaps spade will end up being one of the nicer ones…

    • Jim__L

      Please find a different figure of speech here.

      • Andrew Allison

        It was chosen deliberately. My disgust with the individual in question increases daily.

        • Jim__L

          I understand your frustration.

          Nonetheless, there is no reason to use, and overwhelming reasons not to use, a racially loaded term.

          • Andrew Allison

            Whilst I confess to a double entendre, I reject the co-option by the BGI of a perfectly serviceable phrase originated by the Ancient Greeks. The presumption that the phrase is racist is, itself, presumptuous.

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