How the U.S. Election Has Derailed Obama’s ‘Pivot’ to Asia

The great paradox of the U.S. presidential election campaign is that it has helped achieve some of China’s cherished strategic aims ― weakening the U.S.-led post-World War II alliance system in the region and undermining a central plank of U.S. President Barack Obama’s “pivot” to Asia, the Trans-Pacific Partnership, or the TPP. 

By saying America might cast off the burden of allies, U.S. Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump has already planted the long seeds of doubt among leaders in Japan, South Korea, the Philippines and elsewhere in Asia. Rodrigo Duterte, the Philippine president, likely only says what many are thinking when he questions American staying power and recognizes the need to forge a closer relationship with China.

“America has lost now,” he said on his visit to Beijing last week, and it is time to “separate.”

And it should be noted that, whatever else may be repulsive about Trump, the idea of shedding the burden of America’s allies, or at least demanding they share in the costs, resonates with the public, with respect to alliance commitments in both Europe and Asia.

A United Food and Commercial Workers anti-TPP poster features politicians from the U.S. election cycle.UFCW
A United Food and Commercial Workers anti-TPP poster features politicians from the U.S. election cycle.

China, however, should be careful what it wishes for in this regard. It could end up producing a nuclear Japan sooner rather than later if America’s defense umbrella were folded up. No present security arrangements in the region should be dismantled until a more inclusive architecture is in place. A vacuum, as we’ve seen in the Mideast, would be dangerous for everyone.

Both Trump and U.S. Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton, under pressure from the Sen. Bernie Sander’s (Vt.) wing of the Democratic Party, have condemned the TPP, which was the centerpiece of the idea of an “economic NATO” that would anchor a new trading architecture for East Asia that placed China on the sidelines. Singapore has signaled that a failure to see through the TPP, which leaders in Japan agreed to at great political cost by overriding powerful rice farmers, will make allies doubt America’s clout. A failure of TPP would grant China more space to shape the rules in the region through alternative bilateral and regional trade pacts.

In short, the American “pivot” to Asia has been sent on a detour, if not derailed, by a disgruntled American public.

The American ‘pivot’ to Asia has been sent on a detour, if not derailed, by a disgruntled American public.

This raises an even larger question: Can democracy be counted on to keep its commitments? What has happened with the TPP may also happen to the climate change accord signed by the U.S. and China. Twenty-eight American states are trying to kill Obama’s linchpin Clean Power Plan that would curb the use of coal as an energy source in the courts.

If Hillary Clinton wins, her stated foreign policy aim is to maintain America’s global leadership. At the same time, her national security team has made clear in private conversations that no one wants a weak China. That is not in America’s interest, nor is it in the world’s interest. If China’s ambitions need to be challenged, her team has said, it would be through bolstering its allies.

On this score, the U.S. has to be careful not to overreach given the growing wariness of those allies concerning America’s long-term commitment in the face of China’s growing influence. As George Yeo, Singapore’s former foreign minister, has said, “while Asian countries might value the U.S. as a friend, no one wants China as an enemy.”

In a recent visit to Beijing, Philippine President Duterte said, "America has lost," and signaled his desire to move towASSOCIATED PRESS
In a recent visit to Beijing, Philippine President Duterte said, “America has lost,” and signaled his desire to move toward China. 

Overall, a new Clinton administration would oppose the idea of “Asia for Asians” promoted by Chinese President Xi Jinping. It wants instead a “pan-Pacific order.” The idea is more to maintain America’s presence, not contain China.

As Peking University scholar Wang Jisi has recently written, the “new normal” of relations between China and the U.S. is a contest over writing these rules of the future order both in trade and security. One key background factor must be taken into account in this context.

From Brexit to Trump and the opposition to TPP, an anti-globalization backlash is setting in across the West. Perhaps we are seeing a new division in the world? Asian nations favor globalization that gives them access to Western markets, but Western publics want to pull back.

‘While Asian countries might value the U.S. as a friend, no one wants China as an enemy.’George Yeo, Singapore’s former foreign minister

On the other hand, some see the neo-Maoist nostalgia sweeping parts of China today as “populism with Chinese characteristics” – also challenging the lack of inclusivity in the prosperity globalization has created for some while leaving others behind.

To the extent this is true, both the West and China in the coming years will be absorbed in reconfiguring their social contract, adjusting globalization according to domestic policies that ensure there are fewer losers than winners.

A Fresh Agenda

Resetting the agenda between the U.S. and China after the American elections will require two up front moves.

First, on China’s part, President Xi Jinping and the rest of the leadership need to clearly explain their worldview and intentions. Xi has departed from the path all previous leaders have followed during the “reform and opening up” period that came after Mao. The rest of the world is unclear about what China wants and where it is going. Opacity leads to suspicion, misinterpretation and distrust. 

Second, the new American leadership must assure China’s leaders that it is not seeking to undermine their one-party system through fomenting a “color revolution” like in Ukraine. This assurance must be communicated directly from president to president. This concern is uppermost in the minds of China’s leaders and shadows all other aspects of the relationship. 

Beyond this, the first gesture of a new American administration should be to join the Chinese-initiated Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, or AIIB, to demonstrate there is ground for agreement on rules and inclusive institutions for the future, and not only contestation. Infrastructure investment in the developing world benefits all in the global economy. Many policy voices in the U.S. regard opposition to AIIB as a major mistake of the Obama administration.

Both Clinton and Xi advisors have told me that dealing with North Korea is a priority of their common agenda.ASSOCIATED PRESS
Both Clinton and Xi advisors have told me that dealing with North Korea is a priority of their common agenda.

The most urgent problem both the U.S. and China face ― North Korea ― could prove the most ready ground for creating new security arrangements outside the old alliance system. Both Clinton and Xi advisors have told me that dealing with North Korea is a priority of their common agenda.

It seems clear that further sanctions will only generate further bombs and missiles from Pyongyang. That has been the consistent pattern since the end of the Bill Clinton administration, when the incoming George W. Bush administration changed course from negotiation to confrontation. In Iran, where there is a vigorous public discourse and elections, the sanctions approach produced internal political pressure for change. That demonstrably does not work in a totalitarian state like North Korea.

With that dynamic in mind, it is time for the U.S. to advance a bold alternative and open up direct talks with North Korea in exchange for a freeze on its nuclear weapons and missile development. China should be a key part of, if not lead, any inspection regime to verify such a freeze.

The lesson of Muammar Gaddafi in Libya is surely on the mind of Kim Jong Un. Gaddafi gave up his nukes, only to later be hounded from power by the warplanes of the West. The Kim regime depends on its nuclear capacity for survival ― and if that is reduced, or ultimately eliminated, a guarantee of security by North Korea’s only ally, China, must stand in its place.

It is time for the U.S. to advance a bold alternative and open up direct talks with North Korea in exchange for a freeze on its nuclear weapons and missile development.

If a freeze arrangement can hold out over specified interval of time, the ultimate step would be a final peace treaty between North Korea and the U.S. that supplants the armistice that has been in place since the end of the Korean War. South Korea would have to agree, of course, with such an approach, its security also guaranteed by the U.S. as well as China. China would have to play the key role in guaranteeing that the terms are adhered to in Pyongyang and that the West does not seek to overthrow the North Korean regime. Uppermost in the wary minds of China’s leaders will be the broken promises made to Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev by American leaders at the end of the Cold War not to expand NATO to Russia’s borders.

If such a difficult deal could be put together, not only would the danger of North Korean nukes to the region be dampened, but this common security approach by the U.S. and China would also form the embryo of a Northeast Asia architecture that is inclusive of all key powers. It could be the beginning of a new order in East Asia instead of the buildup of mistrust we have been seeing in recent years.

If this were combined with the U.S. joining the AIIB and more open dialogue with China on future intentions, it would show there are scenarios for cooperation instead of only conflict. It would be a step out of the Thucydides trap – the conflict between rising and established powers – into which the U.S. and China are drifting. Ultimately, it would benefit the region and the world.

This post is adapted from a talk at a Peking University forum in Beijing on Oct. 9. A version of this piece appeared on China Daily.