Obama & His Foreign Policy Dilemmas in Asia

Posted on November 9, 2012

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Time for Obama’s pivot-to-Asia turns from empy words into concrete actions, or should U.S. allies such as Japan, the Philippines, South Korea etc. align their national interests with SEATO now that Obama has made clear that China is the U.S.’s closest ally in Asia when he decided to take a neutral stand in the East and South China seas’ disputes AND turns a blind eye toward atrocities committed by China against ethnic minorities such as Tibetans, Uyghurs ?

Obama lets China bully U.S.’s allies in East and South China seas’ disputes

Barack Obama has won the battle for re-election, but now he must contend with the “war” for restoring American prosperity. While the headlines are currently dominated by domestic issues, including the looming “fiscal cliff,” President Obama also faces numerous challenges abroad. China is growing increasingly aggressive in its expansion and is positioning itself to challenge the fading U.S. hegemon. Meanwhile, Myanmar had been a bright spot for U.S. foreign policy, but recent developments threaten to destabilize the impoverished nation. Add in an increasingly belligerent Iran and President Obama has his work cut out for him.

Just about everyone is aware of the looming “fiscal cliff.” If the U.S. Congress and the President himself cannot work out a fiscally sound budget policy, then severe spending cuts and tax hikes will automatically go into effect. Most economists agree, these tax hikes and spending cuts will almost certainly drag the U.S. into recession and could threaten the global economy.

While the Fiscal Cliff is the biggest issue on the horizon, it is not the only important issue by any means. China is growing increasingly aggressive in the South China Sea and elsewhere around the world, ready to show its dominance on the world stage. China is also ramping up its military commitments and may some day challenge the U.S. For military supremacy.

And military activities aren’t the only sign of Chinese expansion. Recent aggressive trade agreements with countries ranging from Japan to Iran now allow direct currency exchanges between China and various other nations. This allows the the two countries involved in the agreement to exchange currencies and goods without having to use the dollar as an intermediary. The move threatens the U.S. Dollar’s position as the world’s “reserve” currency.

Myanmar had been a bright spot in recent weeks but progress has been derailed as ethnic tensions have begun to flair up. Violence has recently broke out in the Rakhine province, leaving 140 people dead and at least 100,000 people displaced. Many Muslim villagers, fearing for their lives, took to the seas in boats and makeshift rafts, hoping to escape the violence.

According to reports, the Myanmar government has been working to quell the violence between the Buddhist and the Muslim populations in the state of Rakhine. If true this would mark a positive step for a government that has been accused of oppressing minority groups within Myanmar. This could bring about renewed violence and also dash heightened hopes for long-lasting stability in the impoverished South East Asian nation.

Strategically, Myanmar is important for the U.S. for several reasons. Myanmar had been moving closer and closer to China during its isolation, however, by encouraging reform and stability, the U.S. can curb Chinese expansion through diplomacy. Myanmar could also serve as an important blue print for engaging other long isolated regimes, such as Cuba and North Korea. Though the circumstances in each case are vastly different, successful reforms and increased prosperity in Myanmar might help bring other rogue regimes to the table.

Iran has so far held firm to its commitment to develop nuclear energy, supposedly for peaceful purposes. Of course, many nations and analysts suspect that Iran is also trying to develop nuclear weapons. Under intense pressure from international sanctions Iran seems to becoming increasingly belligerent, at least in rhetoric. Sanctions may cause the Iranian government to fold, but on the other hand, the hard-line government could also respond with desperate measures.

While the United States Military could easily overpower the Iranian military in a direct conflict, President Barack Obama is almost certainly looking to avoid another costly military campaign. Further, the Iranian military could possibly shut down the straights of Hormuz in the Persian Gulf, disrupting oil supplies. Another conflict in the greater region could inflame tensions even further and would drain the United State’s already spent resources.

If Iran continues on its path towards developing a nuclear arsenal there is a high risk that another regional country might launch a unilateral counter attack. The most likely candidate to launch such an attack is Israel, which is vehemently opposed to a nuclear armed Iran. Saudi Arabia and other “Arab” nations, however, are also strongly opposed to Iran’s nuclear ambitions, whether said ambitions be peaceful or not.

If President Barack Obama is unable to get Iran to abandon its nuclear ambitions there is a strong possibility that a regional conflict could erupt, regardless of whether or not the United States starts or supports it. Almost certainly the U.S. would eventually get drawn into such a conflict, even against its own will. Such a conflict would undoubtedly hurt oil supplies and would cause a spike in oil prices. This in-turn could send the global economy grinding to a halt.

While the looming fiscal cliff will eat up most of the headlines in coming weeks, the Obama administration must also juggle numerous other issues around the world. With America being largely perceived as on the decline, the Obama administration will be under increased pressure to prove to the world that the United States is still the leading superpower and able to effectively participate and when necessary manage world affairs.

Value Walk

Foreign tests for Obama

On foreign policy, President Obama effectively posted a sign on the White House lawn last summer that said: Come back after Election Day. Now, the moment has arrived, and the world’s problems are lining up for Obama’s attention.

To manage them, Obama will have to make decisions of the sort he sometimes deferred during his first term. The time is over for the cautious (if often sensible) approach that was dubbed “leading from behind.” Here’s a look at some urgent global issues intruding on the Obama victory party:

●China is the biggest opportunity and danger ahead. A new leadership headed by Xi Jinping is taking over, but the shaky transition reminds Chinese and foreigners alike of the instability beneath the country’s glittering surface. Rising nations sometimes turn to nationalism as a way of maintaining internal cohesion, and this trend has been evident in Beijing’s push in the South China Sea. Obama’s response has been a “rebalancing” of military power toward Asia, but that’s only half the answer; diplomacy may matter even more.

Obama will be traveling to an Asian summit in Cambodia this month. A stop in China won’t happen now (partly because of the uncompleted leadership transition), but it’s a priority for next year. The challenge is to build a dialogue with Beijing that can avoid the military confrontations that often arise when rising powers such as China confront already dominant ones.

Harvard’s Graham Allison suggests that Obama consider a version of what President John F. Kennedy called “precarious rules of the status quo” between the United States and the Soviet Union after the Cuban missile crisis. This involved regular dialogue about strategic interests and an understanding that neither side would take provocative steps in the other’s back yard. Obama should sponsor a similar dialogue with China’s new leaders.

●Iran poses the biggest risk of war and also the chance for a diplomatic breakthrough. Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi and other would-be mediators have been floating trial balloons, but Obama wants confirmation that Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei supports such proposals. Another meeting of the P5+1 countries with Iran is expected within the next month; but the real negotiating may happen at the bilateral meeting both Tehran and Washington seem to want, which should happen sooner rather than later.

What’s the right formula for an agreement? Allison argues that the United States and Israel should stop dreaming about an ideal agreement and prepare for an “ugly deal,” like the one that ended the Cuban missile crisis. I agree with him that an acceptable “ugly” formula is one that verifiably stops Iran from having a bomb and also from having the capability to break out toward weaponization faster than the United States can prevent it.

●Afghanistan is where bad news is almost certainly ahead. Obama talked during the campaign as if withdrawal of U.S. troops by 2014 was just a matter of putting them on planes. But the U.S. exit strategy is premised on Afghan security forces (ANSF) that can take over and avert a civil war — and that’s looking increasingly dubious. An October report by the special inspector general for Afghanistan reconstruction warned bluntly: “The Afghan government will likely be incapable of fully sustaining ANSF facilities after the transition in 2014.”

The missing element is a political transition to accompany the military drawdown. If Obama can’t create this dynamic, his Afghan exit strategy will implode.

●The Middle East is where presidents make their legacies and shed their tears. Obama faces three big challenges: the metastasizing Syrian civil war, solidifying democracy in Egypt and rehabilitating a broken Israeli-Palestinian peace process. These three areas show the limits of U.S. power — as in last week’s failure to overhaul the Syrian opposition. But recovering from failure is part of the art of diplomacy in the Middle East, and that holds for Syria.

In dealing with Syria, Egypt and the Palestinian problem, Obama needs something that was too rare in the first term — a round of secret contacts to build up the local players who can be America’s partners for peace. This means quiet contacts with everyone from Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi to the next Israeli prime minister (and with Israeli elections in February, that’s not necessarily Benjamin Netanyahu, who made a costly losing bet on Mitt Romney).

The sign at the White House says: Reopening for business. But first some quiet talks, and some strategic thinking about leading from the front.

David Ignatius

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