By Troy Stangarone
The 2008 financial crisis began to raise questions about whether the United States was a waning power soon to be eclipsed by a rising China. Despite China’s economy still being less than half the size the United States at the time, its vast population and consistent high levels of growth made China seem to be a nation on the go as opposed to the slow growing and economically hindered United States.
Partially in response to this challenge and to reassure its allies, the United States shifted its foreign policy to focus more on the Asia-Pacific under the rubric of the “Asia Pivot”, now more commonly referred to as the Asian rebalance. The rebalance contained a series of components that ranged from high level U.S. participation in regional summits such as the East Asian Forum, to increased economic engagement through the Trans-Pacific Partnership, to a gradual shifting of greater military resources to the region over time. However, recent events have again lead to concerns about the United States’ staying power in Asia.
First, there has been a perceived shift in the Obama Administration’s priorities back to the Middle East. With the departure of Hillary Clinton from the State Department, along with well known Asia hands such as Kurt Campbell, there were concerns that Asian rebalance would become a lower priority for the Administration. Secretary John Kerry added to this perception when he expressed doubt about some aspects of the rebalance in his confirmation hearing, saying that “I’m not convinced that increased military ramp-up [in the Asia-Pacific] is critical yet,” going on to add “That’s something I’d want to look at very carefully.”
Some of this concern seems to be justified with the emphasis in the Administration’s foreign policy shifting to a renewed effort at talks with Iran over its nuclear program and Secretary Kerry’s efforts to revive peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians.
However, larger events have also played a role. The toppling of the first democratically elected president of Egypt earlier this summer as well as the crisis over the suspected use of chemical weapons by the Assad regime in Syria have also placed a need for a greater focus on the Middle East in recent months.
The budget battles in the United States have also taken a toll. As the sequester, implementing mandatory spending cuts equally split between defense and domestic programs, took hold this year, questions began to arise about the ability of the United States to fulfill its pledge to rebalance towards Asia. As North Korea turned up its own provocations earlier this spring, Deputy Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter was reaffirming the U.S. commitment to defend Korea by saying that “We will deal with that turmoil [sequestration] in a way that does not affect the Korean peninsula,” he said. “That’s the direction that has been given, so operations and actions on the Korean peninsula are not affected.”
As the current government shutdown loomed, Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel also reemphasized that the United States would not reduce its commitment to defend Korea. In regards to U.S. force posture in Korea, he said that “No, there’s never been any consideration of changing our force protection or force presence here in Korea or anywhere else in this area,” also adding that “We’ll continue to do what we’ve got to do to manage those [spending] reductions, [and] at the same time assure our partners… specifically here in the Asia-Pacific that our commitments still stand,” said Hagel.
That latest casualty of the budget battles has been the president’s schedule trip to the annual APEC and the East Asia Summit. The challenge is perhaps best described by Ian Storey of the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies who notes that while the decision to cancel the trip is perfectly understandable, “it projects a poor image of America as a country that is politically dysfunctional and on the verge of another economic crisis.” Of course, with the U.S. set to reach the debt ceiling by October 17, the potential exists for a further waning of confidence in U.S. governance should the United States default on its debts.
In isolation, many of these challenges to the United States’ influence in Asia could be overcome and in time would be seen merely as a blip on the radar. However, if the budget battles of recent years become a more permanent feature of U.S. domestic politics, the risk exists that the United States’ partners in Asia begin to see the U.S. as politically dysfunctional and as a result U.S. influence in the region wanes over time.
Troy Stangarone is the Senior Director for Congressional Affairs and Trade for the Korea Economic Institute. The views expressed here are his own.
Photo from The White House’s photostream on flickr Creative Commons.