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1.6  Obama's Pivot to Asia & Trump's Isolationism

1 December 2016

US Declining Economic Fortunes and Geopolitical Influence

As aforementioned, US’ sight shifted to China soon after the disintegration of the Soviet Union. Senior Bush and Bill Clinton chose engagement over containment in the hope that an increasingly affluent China with a burgeoning affluent middle class would be politically more attuned to western-style democracy. In contrast, the hawkish Junior Bush administration dominated by the neocons favoured containment but was distracted by their protracted military misadventures in Middle East and the indefinite global war on terror in the aftermath of the 9/11 New York terror attack. It was only after the 2008 Global Financial Crisis that US declining economic fortunes and geopolitical influence around the world vis-à-vis a rising China once again raised alarm among the American political elites. There was added urgency particularly after China demonstrated its clear intention to challenge the dollar hegemony with talks of a supranational reserves currency and the internationalization of its RMB. (See Chapter 302).


Notably, the US has no territorial claims in the China Seas but East Asia represents significant economic interests to the Americans. The Asia-Pacific share of total U.S. trade has risen from 5 percent in 1900 to 15 percent in 1950 to 30 percent by the end of 2012, larger even than U.S. trade with the rest of North America.[1] In 2012, US trade with Asia of $1.1 trillion dollars made up about one-third of total US trade.[2] That is set to increase significantly with Asia on the rise.


US interests in East Asia also reflect the region’s burgeoning economic strength. Over the past decade, East Asia’s economy has become the engine of world growth. While the major developed economies (including the US, the EU, and Japan) grew at an average of 1.3 percent per annum, the developing economies of Asia sped ahead at an average of 8.5 percent per annum, driven by its vast reservoir of human capital and its surging productivity.[3] According to the Global Trends 2030 report published by the National Intelligence Council, Asia is set to surpass both North America and Europe combined in terms of global power by 2030, based on a combination of GDP, population, defense spending, and investment in technology.[4]


As East Asia’s largest country by far, as a budding world power, and with an outward-oriented economy, China is bound to have a huge role in East Asia. A peaceful, stable, prosperous region that is under Chinese influence but entirely accessible to the United States might not be injurious to US interests. On the other hand, however, there are fears that China could also go ‘rogue’, establishing an East Asian sphere of influence in which it could bully its neighbours, weaken bonds between the US and its regional friends, restricting the freedom of action of US military forces, and erecting regional economic arrangements disadvantageous to the US.


The combination of the region’s importance and the uncertainty of China’s behaviour as its power grows argues against American complacency and dictates that US sees China’s growing economic clout and military strength as an imminent threat to American strategic primacy in Asia Pacific. Chinese dominance of East Asia would come at the expense of critical US interests, if not now then later. Great power geopolitics thus demands that the US prevent East Asia from becoming a Chinese “sphere of influence.”


Obama’s Pivot to Asia


Soon after Barak Obama (served 2009 – 2017) assumed the presidency in 2009, efforts to contain China resumed. In 2011, then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton published a Foreign Policy article calling for greater US investments in Asia to “sustain our leadership and advance our values.”[5] By 2012, the Obama administration launched the ‘Pivot to Asia’ initiative.[6] The pivot, or ‘rebalance’ as it is later known, is meant to be a strategic "rebalancing" of U.S. interests from Europe and the Middle East toward East Asia. [7] The idea is to extract US from the Middle East so that economic focus, through Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), as well as diplomatic and military assets could be redirected to East Asia.


In making his case for the TPP, Obama asserted “…we can’t let countries like China write the rules of the global economy. We should write those rules.”[8] The TPP agreement therefore had important strategic values for the US. In addition to affirming US’ commitment to free trade and providing a coherent set of economic rules for trade, investment, and services that could help to strengthen the US neoliberal economic model currently under siege, the TPP would also strengthen political, social, and economic bonds between US and its close Asian partners.


To support the pivot, the US Defense Department had committed to deploying 60% of its naval and air assets to Asia in addition to the stationing of Marines in Australia.[9] Its 7th Fleet, for example, is currently based in Japan though the vessels of the strike group are distributed across the region in also South Korea and Singapore. More recently, there were also talks about deploying also 3rd Fleet to the region in 2018.


The pivot is also followed by provocative actions of its allies Japan and Philippines with conflicting territorial claims with China. In September 2012, during a visit to the US, Tokyo governor Shintaro Ishihara’s announced his intention to purchase the Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands from private owners. To prevent the issue from being exploited by the Japanese right wings, Japan government moved to nationalize the islands. In January 2013, Philippines President Benigno Aquino unilaterally submitted its territorial disputes with China in South China Sea for arbitration by the Hague-based Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA). On the ground of maintaining the freedom of navigation and overflight in what it sees is international water, US Navy has also stepped up maritime operations in the SCS.


By this time, however, the distracted Bush administration provided China with the precious space and time to exploit the opportunities afforded by its accession to WTO to build its physical infrastructures, industrialize its economy, and accumulate its financial reserves. By the end of 2010, China had overtaken Japan to become the world’s second largest economy. Its $5.8 trillion economy was larger than Japan's $5.474 trillion though in terms of GDP per capita, Japan’s $34,000 was considerably higher than China’s $7,500.[10]


In contrast, even though the US economy was still almost three times the size of the Chinese economy in dollar terms, the US was getting buried in an increasingly bigger and deeper fiscal hole that it had dug for itself with its misadventures in the Middle East, not to mention also the trillions spent in tackling the subprime financial crisis.


Trump’s Return to Isolationism


Externally, Trump wasted no time in demonstrating his “America First” orientation by walking away from the enormous Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal; threatening to renegotiate the North America Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA); promising to take punitive actions against countries enjoying persistent trade surplus with the US; berating his traditional European allies in NATO as free-riders and demanding that they spend more on their national defense; and withdrawing America from the Paris climate accord.


Trump overarching strategy can be summarized as one emphasizing freedom of action, rebalanced and reciprocal alliance relationships, a blunt emphasis on U.S. national interests, attention to the domestic economic sources of power, continuing forward military presence, counterpressure against numerous foreign adversaries and a new American nationalism.[11]


By his actions, Trump not only passed on an opportunity to strengthen ties with US’ traditional allies and encouraged them to hedge their bets on Washington but also allowed China's Xi to claim the high ground on not only global environmental activism but also global free trade. Under Trump, America has come a full circle evolving from isolationism to regionalism, internationalism and now back to isolationism.


Meanwhile in Asia, Trump takes a hard-line position on North Korea’s nuclear and missile program by refusing to accept the reality of Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons as a basic starting position.  North Korea’s stubborn pursuit of a nuclear ICBM has complicated Washington’s efforts to resist China’s expansionism in Asia. In May 2017, the first freedom of navigation operation by the US Navy under the Trump administration sailed within 12 nautical miles of Mischief Reef in the Spratly Island chain and was met with protest from Beijing. In July 2017, Trump approved a plan to give the United States Navy more freedom to carry out patrols in the South China Sea. With that approval, freedom of navigation operations through the SCS could be conducted on a “very routine, very regular” basis, rather than as a “one-off event”.[13]

PREVIOUS1.5  9/11 & Bush's Unilateralism (Bernard Lewis’ “Clash of Civilization” Thesis)

NEXT1.7  US in Decline - Perils of Elitism & Vested Interests 



[1] See Gompert, David C. (2013). p. 1.

[2] See Binnendijk, 2014a, p. 274

[3] See Gompert, David C. (2013). P.76

[4] See U.S. National Intelligence Council, 2012, p. 16.

[5] See Hillary R. Clinton. (2011).

[6] The Obama administration’s “pivot” is laid out in The White House, Sustaining U.S. Global Leadership: Priorities for 21st Century Defense, January 2012.

[7] The intent was to rebalance strategic attention and some defence resources to the Asian theatre. To prevent creating the impression that the US was pivoting away from other partners, the Obama administration began calling it a “rebalance.” However, the term “pivot” stuck and continued to be used.


[9] See Hans Binnendijk. (2016). Pp 101

[10] See BBC. (2011).

[11] See Colin Dueck. (2018). “Trump's National Security Strategy: 10 Big Priorities.” National Interest. January 9, 2018.

[12] See Ian Bremmer. (2017). “The U.S. Can Win a Trade War With China. That Doesn't Mean It Should Try.” EurasiaGroup. August 17, 2017.

[13] See Laura Zhou. (2017). “Trump signs off on plan to allow US Navy more freedom to patrol in South China Sea, report says.” SCMP. July 24, 2017.

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