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Asia's Game of Thrones
Obama’s Asia Pivot Policy Still Bearing Sour Fruit

Cheer up about failing to get Assad to give up his chemical weapons in Syria, President Obama. Surely your foreign policy legacy in Asia is more secure.

Oh, wait

A U.S. Navy aid unit has been told to leave Cambodia, the U.S. embassy said, in a new sign of the Southeast Asian country loosening links with Washington as it strengthens ties with Beijing.

The departure of the U.S. Navy Mobile Construction Battalion – known as the Seabees – meant the cancellation of 20 planned projects, including at schools and hospitals, the embassy said on its Facebook page on Monday.

Well, maybe it’s just a fluke—who needs Cambodia anyway?

Oh, wait

China and Southeast Asian countries have made progress in talks on a code of conduct for the disputed South China Sea, the Philippine acting foreign minister said on Tuesday.

China claims almost the entire waterway, through which about $5 trillion in sea-borne goods pass every year. Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam also have claims.

“We have made good progress on coming up with a framework for a code on conduct with China,” Philippine Acting Foreign Minister Enrique Manalo said, adding the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and China were more than halfway through identifying the contents.

“From a scale of 1-10, we are at the upper level. Remember, we were starting from zero in January. There have been a number of elements agreed and we would definitely have a framework on which to embark a serious negotiation on a code of conduct.”

(Some context: China has been supporting ASEAN code-of-conduct talks since August as a way to sideline Washington. It appears to be working.)

Obama’s vision of a multilateral regional coalition appears to be in tatters. President Trump may not mind, as he doesn’t appear to intrinsically value such things anyway. Still, he may find that the kinds of deals he wants in the region would have been easier to come by had his predecessor been more successful.

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  • RedWell

    Interesting developments, but the “Pivot to Asia has failed!” framing is a dead horse. Move on. Obama and co. launched it in 2011 … in his first term. They weren’t really defending or advancing it by 2013 or so. The TPP was probably a lingering holdover, though that is the sort of thing that any free trader might have advocated no matter the larger strategic context. This blog is the only place that keeps up this “pivot” drumbeat.

    The real question is this: What will Trump and co. do about these developments? I’m seeing lots of tough talk, but what I suspect is that they will roll over just like Obama because they lack a clear vision and most Americans don’t think the region is worth a war.

  • Jacksonian_Libertarian

    Obama is the worst President in history.

    • Blackbeard

      Bad yes but worse than Carter? That’s a high bar to clear and remember Carter has also been the worst ex-president in history.

    • ——————————

      I agree with BB, it’s got to be Carter.

      Not only was he bad, but he was also a buffoon….

    • Bystander

      I’m not sure about Carter as the worst. He made a bunch of mistakes but did deregulate transportation — trucking and airlines. He also began to undermine the Soviets in Afghanistan. Perhaps most importantly, he appointed Paul Volcker to chair the Fed. Carter’s defeat in 1980 left Reagan to suffer through the recession brought on by Volcker that squeezed out the runaway inflation of the 70s so we cannot know if Carter would have flinched and tried to undo Volcker’s efforts but at least Carter made the right pick to begin with.

      Agree that Carter has been the worst ex-president. He undermined Clinton’s efforts to prevent the Norks from going nuclear. That counts against him in my book.

    • Tom

      Still Buchanan.

  • Suzy Dixon

    Obama was weak, but allies most definitely are not pivoting to the Chinese communist party lol. Japan? No. South Korea? No (actually moved closer to the US recently). Taiwan? No. Philippines? Not really. Rodrigo is constantly having his verbal diarrhea mopped up by the bureaucrats and generals in Manila.

    • Isaiah601

      Great point.

    • SineWaveII

      Even Vietnam prefers a closer relationship with us over China.

  • ——————————

    Obama’s presidency will be hearing sour fruit for decades to come….

  • lukelea

    China is the 800 lbs. Gorilla. Is it in America’s or the West’s vital interest to try to control the rules in its near neighborhood? Not clear that it is.

    • Stephen W. Houghton

      The Ocean is our neighborhood. Control of the Sea Lines of Communication is an American vital interest. China is not an 800 pound Gorilla, its demographics show it to be a declining power at its peak. If we can successfully contain them over the next 10-15 years the threat they pose will be passed.

  • Angel Martin

    They’ll be back. Countries have permanent interests, not eternal alliances.

    When you strip away the “internationalist” BS, the USA biggest interest in Asia is the threat of N Korea and China nuclear programs.

    Those programs are a huge threat to all these other asian countries as well – they re the hammer that would allow China/NKorea to get any concessions they want from other asian countries.

    so common interests will force USA and asia back together, whether they want it or not.

  • D4x

    Why were the USN Seabees building schools and hospitals in Cambodia? Why is ASEAN NOT the best venue for Code of Conduct in the South China Sea? Perhaps it is time for any POTUS to not be solely concerned about legacy instead of what is in America’s interest that requires bilateral or multilateral coalitions.

    Has anyone at TAI read Paul Kennedy’s 1989 “The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers: Economic Change and Military Conflict from 1500 to 2000”:

  • FriendlyGoat

    Saying that deals would be easier for Trump to get if Obama had been more successful is one of the most ridiculous things I ever heard of.
    Trump is the deal-maker with the diplomatic magic of “America First”.

    • ——————————

      Deals would be easier for anyone if the person before them did a better job…doesn’t matter who the people are, or what the business is.
      So you are trying to compare Trump’s previous experiences with Obama’s before he became president?…a community organizer, and a couple of years in the senate…what is that?
      Trump’s deals are sooo good…good for him and his business, as they should be…so now America is his business…I don’t think he will be getting sued by China, Iran, North Korea….

      • FriendlyGoat

        First of all, I really have no idea why any ordinary people believe that Trump’s success in amassing a fortune FROM them via his personal brand is going to rub off downward on them from his becoming president. Instead of them being the viewers of The Apprentice, they suddenly think they’re all going to get a job at The Apprentice or receive dividends as shareholders of The Apprentice? Or instead of them being the golf and hotel customers, they think they are now part owners of that stuff? One would think such people have no idea of the difference between who pays in and who gets to take cash out.

        On deals and dealmaking with adversaries and counter-parties, here is where we are with Trump. We have announced America First and we have rattled unspecified military action against China, Iran and North Korea. We have scuttled some trade deals with friends and threatened protectionist policy instead. In addition to yelling disdain at Mexico and other southern neighbors and cheering disunity in Europe, we have a slappy president who is tweeting all kinds of unhinged nonsense in front of the world audience every day. And, for those who study him, he has a personal reputation of regularly getting sued for cause in his personal business life. Before we’re done, the old community organizer approach ain’t gonna look too bad.

        • ——————————

          The first part of my previous comment was NON-partisan, just a fact.

          As to why people follow any candidate…most people are sheep and need to ‘follow’ something or someone. People follow religion, how stupid is that? Why not just believe in God, without all the man-made rules and stories in thousands of years old books? They also followed ‘hope and change’…there is NO hope and change. It is feel-good platitude for the weak-minded…but it worked, so good for Obama. Okay, so now we have established most people are followers and need to follow something…again, NON-partisan, and fact.

          As to your last paragraph, well let’s see what he does, not make a bunch of hyper-partisan predictions. Predictions of those type are a complete waste of time, no one knows what will happen…fact….

          • FriendlyGoat

            To the non-partisan part.

            1) You are correct that we are given to being followers of personalities, messages, message styles, trends, brands and fads—-and that we seem to “need” to do that. It explains the rise of leaders everywhere (both people and products) in all times and in all fields.

            Some of those are likely to produce better long-term results than others. The best ones are often more boring than the worst ones. Spinach and broccoli do not sell as well as Big Macs or ice cream. Le forums are not as well-attended as football.

            2) Religion is as good or as bad as what it suggests to people. Of the big “monotheism three”, the Old Testament contains explanations of phenomena which are not factual, designations of authority to men and doctrines which are not desirable, and group behaviors which are not acceptable. The story of the Tower of Babel is not the truth about languages, there is no reason for High Priests to make determinations for OTHER people about anything, and we have decided not to either burn animal sacrifices or participate in group stoning of people.

            Islam assumes that Muhammad is the “final” prophet, whose sayings cannot be either changed or superseded and must all be followed in every aspect of faith and civic life.

            In the middle is Jesus, who plucked a saying from the old writings (now known as Leviticus 19:18) and advised the people of his day—–to their astonishment—– that it (“Love your neighbor as you love yourself”) should be the MAIN focus of religion, adding the story of the Good Samaritan for illustration of who is a neighbor and what the concept might look like in practice. As far as I’m concerned, this is what is worthy of belief and the rest is (are) not.

            To the partisan part. The “evangelicals”, or those who most claim that they are “born again” in Jesus, just tipped the election of Donald Trump as both their national leader and (though many don’t know it), their most prominent spiritual leader. They voted this way at the rate of 81%. They have decided to mock the Hope and Change of “love the neighbors” and replace it with “kick ass nationalism.” This is not a positive development in the supposedly-enlightened 21st Century for either religion or civic government.

          • Anthony

            Brief but thoughtful.

          • FriendlyGoat


          • ——————————

            Nice comment, FG.

            The only part I don’t agree on is:
            “What they “decided” is for America to mock the hope and change ideal of “love the neighbors” and replace it with “kick ass nationalism.” This is not a positive development in the supposedly-enlightened 21st Century for either religion or world civilization.”

            Hope and change IS a platitude to make people feel good. It is not reality to a large degree, it’s just food for the sheeple to eat up…and I don’t care if it was used by a Dem or a Republican.

            Sometimes you gotta “kick ass”. Sometimes you gotta punch a bully in the face. Sitting around singing kumbaya with ourselves, and with the rest world, is insanely naive at best…and insanely dangerous.
            As far as human enlightenment, it is mostly just an artificial facade that has risen with, and is supported by, our technologies.
            Take away the technologies and in a few centuries (or probably sooner), we will go back to animal sacrifices, plundering and pillaging, and mob justice.

            It is real easy to be ‘enlightened’ when you can jump in a car, go to a store, spend 1 hour accumulating your family’s food for the week, then go back to your heated and air-conditioned house, turn on the lights, and watch a TV.
            Don’t kid yourself…we are not enlightened, we are merely softened….

          • FriendlyGoat

            1) Thanks

            2) In terms of the election, I am convinced that the evangelicals determined the result because, at their 81% Trump voting rate, they produced Trump votes in Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania which were more than 25 times the thin margin in those states which tipped the electoral college. If they had voted near 50/50 in those three states (as Catholics did at 52% Trump), we would have a Dem president. This is why I dwell on evangelicals with respect to whatever Trumpism becomes. More than any other group, we must realize that a particular segment of religion swung the pendulum to the conservative alignment we now see.
            Yes, there were the “working class whites”, but the thing is, to a fairly significant degree of overlap, they and the “white evangelicals” are the same people.

            3) So far, with Republicans, the priorities seem to be a corporate-leaning Supreme Court, gargantuan tax cuts for the wealthiest people in the country, destruction of national health insurance standards, de-emphasis of environmental matters, assaults on public education, reduction in regulation of all kinds of business practices, budget cuts to everything under the sun which was designed to help people, likely new measures to discourage poor people from voting, a soft pedaling of our rhetoric on human rights in this country and in all countries, the final assassination of collective bargaining, maybe even a new trillion in taxes levied on heartland people via higher prices at Walmart and Dollar Tree.

            The “bully” that people think they are punching in the nose is more likely that people have voted to have themselves punched in the nose by their “betters” for decades to come. We are constantly invited to think that a GOP president will make us “great again” in foreign affairs via “nationalism”, but the internal screw-over of the entire lower half of our citizens is what is actually going on. “Hope and Change” was supposed to be the avoidance of that agenda—-and it worked for a while. Now we’re back to the “old ball game”.

            4) You are correct that most of us are soft—-via convenience. I don’t see any change coming to that, except that many people will find themselves increasingly unable to afford some of (maybe much of) what they once had.

        • Boritz

          The Apprentice is but one star and Trump’s constellation of success. One example of his Midas Touch.

          • FriendlyGoat

            Yes, first there was Trump real estate. Then there were Trump casino ventures which are the ultimate razzle-dazzle, but which became over-extended anyway. Then there was putting the Trump brand on all kinds of products with world trademarks. None of this should be a source of confusion for individuals about the differences in whether one just buys and drinks Coca-Cola beverage, works at Coca-Cola, owns Coca-Cola shares or believes Coca-Cola can revive dying small towns, conduct foreign policy without wars, and make good judgments about social policy.

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