The Obama Administration’s formulation of American commitments to Asia, the “rebalance” or “pivot,” has had its successes and shortcomings. 2016 should serve as a time for the Obama Administration to deliver as best it can on the unfinished pieces of its Asia policy and thereby set the table for its successor to implement its own energetic formulation. In so doing, the Administration should prioritize the following five issues.
Support a Fully Funded Defense Budget. The U.S. is an Asia–Pacific power with territory in the region, as well as military bases and extensive arrangements for the use of others nations’ bases. East Asia, however, is a long way from either California or Hawaii. To remain a leader there, the U.S. needs to ensure that its Navy is technologically sophisticated and large enough to protect American interests, even as it remains fully engaged elsewhere in the world. The Administration should work with Congress not only to meet the Navy’s now “endangered plan” for a 308-ship Navy, but also to set a long-term goal of 350 ships. The defense budget that President Obama signs before he leaves office should give the next Administration all it needs to immediately demonstrate America’s long-term staying power.
Support Allies and Partners. President Obama has well maintained American treaty alliances in the Asia–Pacific and expanded on other partnerships of relevance, most notably India and Singapore. U.S.–Australia relations, in particular, look to be in excellent condition. The President lent critical rhetorical support to Japan at the height of its tension with China. Similarly, with South Korea, the Administration has fully supported South Korea in its enduring conflict with communist North Korea. The Administration should do much more to support South Korea, and—not incidentally—address a growing and direct threat to the U.S., by executing new sanctions against North Korea.
Regarding other treaty allies, now that the Philippines’s Supreme Court has greenlighted a new agreement to regularly and systematically rotate American military through Philippine bases, the Administration should move forward with deployments in order to set a baseline for its successor. With regard to America’s other Southeast Asian ally, Thailand, the President should limit the damage to the alliance caused by Thailand’s return to autocracy. It can do this by preserving mil-to-mil ties and keeping its counsel to Thai authorities on democracy insistent, but largely private.
Expand and Deepen Involvement in Regional Summitry. The most notable facet of President Obama’s rebalance has been its explicit support for the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) as the center of regional diplomatic architecture. Consistent engagement of ASEAN is necessary context for fully servicing American interests in the region that fall outside ASEAN’s purview as most of them do. Although the Administration has at times threatened to put more trust in ASEAN-based mechanisms that they can bear, it has established a level of American interaction that can only be diminished by its successor at the cost of demonstrating ambivalence about American interests. In the year ahead, beginning with the February summit with ASEAN leaders at Sunnylands, the President should expand and deepen this engagement and thereby set long-term expectations for American involvement.
Lay Groundwork for Future U.S.–China Relations. U.S.–China relations are at their best when Beijing very clearly understands American interests and priorities. The Administration should establish a track record over the next year that will accommodate an early and clear assertion of interests by the next Administration that does not appear too great a departure from precedent. It should:
- Regularize freedom of navigation operations in the South China Sea. The Obama Administration has badly bungled what should be a much more direct and regular assertion of its rights and the rights of other seafaring nations. The most serious problems revolve around excessive Chinese claims to what, as far as the U.S. Navy is concerned, are essentially high seas. This, and issues surrounding China’s massive reclamation activities in the Spratlys, must be addressed explicitly.
- Keep the door open to full economic engagement. 2016, like most election years, will likely be very long on anti-China rhetoric. As a result, the next Administration will come into office with a head of steam on the need to “get tough” with China. President Obama can help ameliorate the impact of this inevitability by limiting his own anti-China rhetoric (which most often takes the form of economic nationalism) and by stressing the openness of the economic component of the Asia rebalance.
- Manage public expectations about what the multitude of U.S.–China diplomatic engagements can deliver. Dialogue with China on political-security issues is an essential part of America’s China policy. More than 90 engagements, however, is too many. This superabundance has the effect of unproductively constraining the time of U.S. officials and the interagency decision-making process. The next President will need to rationalize the schedule of bilateral engagments with the Chinese. President Obama can help set the stage for that necessity by not overselling the benefit to American interests of diplomatic engagements that are currently underway.
Clarify American Support for Taiwan. Tsai Ing-wen will assume power as the new president of Taiwan in 2016. As carefully and responsibly as Tsai and the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) may approach relations with China, they nevertheless fundamentally reject Beijing’s dream of ultimate unification. This will remain an underlying source of tension as long as the DPP remains in power. The Obama Administration needs to establish trust in Taipei and use that trust to counsel prudence. At the same time, it should demonstrate unwavering support for Taiwan’s security and prerogative in determining its own future. To this end, the Administration should facilitate new arms sales, or, failing this, at least begin building interagency consensus and support on Capitol Hill and Taipei to facilitate approval early in 2017. New fighter jets and diesel-electric submarines should be at the top of the list.
The U.S. is more than a resident power in the Asia–Pacific; it is the region’s preeminent power. Without proper leadership, American interests in peace, freedom, security, and prosperity there cannot be reliably secured. President Obama has had mixed success in serving American interests in the region. In his remaining time in office, the President should work to secure the gains made and position future generations of leaders for success.—Walter Lohman is Director of the Asian Studies Center, of the Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for National Security and Foreign Policy, at The Heritage Foundation.