Obama’s Asia Policy After Clinton: The End of Realism?


With US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on her way out, some in Japan are wondering whether US foreign policy will continue its “pivot” toward East Asia. Veteran diplomat Okazaki Hisahiko offers his analysis.

As US President Barack Obama prepares to embark on a second term, the big question in Japan is whether Washington will continue to make the Asia-Pacific region a top foreign-policy priority. Will the US “pivot” toward Asia continue after the departure of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton?

I cannot answer this question with absolute confidence. But I do hope to shed some light on the issue by examining the development of Washington’s current policy and its relevance to today’s international scene.

Expedience and Its Consequences

All the evidence suggests that we owe the “rebalancing” of US foreign policy to the leadership of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

US policy toward China during President Obama’s first 10 months in office could be characterized as one of all-out accommodation. Anxious to ensure the success of the president’s first visit to Beijing, scheduled for November 2009, the government put off any action or statement that might risk alienating China’s leaders. The White House delayed a sale of arms to Taiwan that could have gone through that summer. Obama also declined to meet with the Dalai Lama in October, becoming the first US president to refuse an audience to the Tibetan spiritual leader after he had traveled all the way to Washington. The administration also studiously refrained from any overt criticism of China’s record on human rights.

But neither the Dalai Lama nor the arms sale to Taiwan could be put off indefinitely, and as soon as Obama’s trip to Beijing was accomplished, the administration quickly took action on both. Reacting with surprising ferocity, Beijing suspended military exchanges with the United States, and bilateral relations quickly turned frosty. Analysts continue to argue over the exact reasons for Beijing’s angry response, but the most common explanation is that internal power struggles had already begun ahead of the Communist Party’s 2012 leadership transition, creating a climate favorable to hardline posturing. Obama’s transparent expediency prior to his visit may have strengthened the position of Beijing’s hawks by making the United States appear weak.

Clinton’s Encirclement Strategy

Throughout this time, Clinton had kept her own counsel as the president held forth on a range of foreign-policy issues—whether seeking dialogue with dictators like Iran’s President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, advocating for the abolition of nuclear weapons in Prague, proclaiming goodwill toward the Arab world in Cairo, or calling for efforts to rebuild ties with Moscow. Indeed, the secretary of state had so little to say during this first year that I was beginning to think she disliked making foreign-policy speeches.

But all that changed in January 2010 with Clinton’s policy speech in Honolulu. Ever since, she has spoken with a loud, clear voice, and one of her most consistent themes has been a renewed focus on East Asia and the Asia-Pacific region. Although she has never said so explicitly, the underlying strategic goal is clearly encirclement of China. (In its basic thrust, the strategy is not far from the “arc of freedom and prosperity” proposed by former Prime Minister Asō Tarō back in 2006, when he was minister for foreign affairs.)

In July 2010, at a meeting of the ASEAN Regional Forum in Hanoi, Clinton braved the ire of the Chinese by wading into the issue of territorial disputes in the South China Sea. The following September, following the collision between a Chinese fishing trawler and Japanese Coast Guard vessels near the Senkaku Islands, she assured the Japanese government that the islands fell under the purview of the Japan-US Security Treaty.

Later that autumn, in the run-up to the November Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in Yokohama, Clinton and Obama separately toured the Asia-Pacific region, together tracing a large, symbolically loaded circle around China. Clinton’s tour, kicked off in late October, included stops at Hawaii, Guam, Vietnam, Malaysia, New Zealand, and Australia. Obama’s tour, launched soon after, focused on India, Indonesia, South Korea, and Japan.

Throughout her tour, Clinton pushed her “pivot to Asia” initiative, even while tactfully stressing that the Asia-Pacific had been a priority of the Obama administration “since day one.” In Honolulu in particular she clearly outlined a policy for renewed engagement in East Asia and (by implication) encirclement of China. But Obama had little to say on the subject of a new Asian focus, apart from an op-ed newspaper article stressing exports to countries like India and Indonesia as a key to job growth in the United States. I wondered whether Obama and Clinton were really on the same page when it came to US foreign policy in Asia.

These suspicions were finally put to rest by Obama’s speech to the Parliament of Australia in November 2011. But that was almost two years after Clinton had first outlined her vision.

Obama’s Reluctant Conversion

It is easy to imagine Obama’s ambivalence toward Clinton’s strategy. From the 2008 presidential election campaign Obama had staked out a liberal, idealistic approach to foreign policy, emphasizing a fresh start in US-Russia relations (which had deteriorated under the previous administration as a result of US plans to build a missile shield in Eastern Europe and Russian intervention in Georgia), direct dialogue with the leaders of Iran and North Korea, reduction and eventual elimination of nuclear weapons, and trust building with the Arab nations of the Middle East.

By contrast, the pivot toward Asia was an essentially conservative policy grounded in realism and predicated on power politics. It was not part of Obama’s original agenda. It was a Clinton initiative that only took hold after two years of advocacy by the secretary of state.

But Clinton has announced that she will step down at the end of Obama’s first term, and Kurt Campbell, who has carried out her policies as assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs, is expected to leave as well. My concern is that the Asia pivot could lose steam after its foremost advocates are gone. Will Obama continue along this realist path?

There are some grounds for optimism on this score.

The first is the actual situation in the world today. Surely anyone would agree that the biggest challenge for international affairs in the twenty-first century has been the rise of China and the resulting shift in the global balance of power. The Hainan Island incident of April 2001(*1) offered a glimpse of the kind of problems that would escalate over the next decade. But after the terrorist attacks of September 11 that same year, the United States diverted its attention and resources to Afghanistan and Iraq. This is scarcely surprising, particularly given the impact of 9/11 on the American psyche. But it did cause Washington to lose sight of larger trends in international affairs. China’s economic and military expansion has been extraordinary and with the Iraq War over and American troops withdrawing from Afghanistan, the focus of US foreign policy is shifting to China and East Asia. From an objective standpoint, it would be hard to justify reversing this trend simply because Clinton and Campbell had departed.

The likely makeup of Obama’s new foreign policy team is another reason for hope. Although the final lineup is still undecided, Obama is expected to hand a key appointment to his good friend Thomas Donilon, currently national security advisor, and to retain Mark Lippert as assistant secretary of defense for Asian and Pacific security affairs. Both Donilon and Lippert are politically shrewd but free from any rigid political ideology. There is no reason to suppose that they are strongly pro-Japanese, but neither are they pro-Chinese ideologues in the mold of Robert Zoellick, who helped craft Washington’s China policy during the second presidential term of George W. Bush. In short, these are people with whom Tokyo can do business, providing it makes sensible policy choices.

Indeed, Japan’s own foreign policy may be the biggest issue going forward. To keep the United States engaged in Asia, we must keep it engaged with Japan. Above all, this means building a firm foundation for bilateral cooperation by establishing Japan’s constitutional right to participate in collective self-defense (and revising the Guidelines for Japan-US Defense Cooperation accordingly) and by playing an active role in the creation of a Trans-Pacific Partnership.

(Originally written in Japanese on November 24, 2012. Title background photo by the Sankei Shimbun.)

(*1) ^ A dispute between Washington and Beijing precipitated by the mid-air collision of a US Navy intelligence aircraft and a Chinese fighter jet off Hainan on April 1, 2001. 

diplomacy security politics Clinton Obama currents US pivot toward Asia