FPI Bulletin: How Obama Can Finish Strong in Asia

November 10, 2014

President Obama arrived in Beijing today for the first in a series of summit meetings hosted by China, Burma, and Australia this week.  This visit comes three years after his administration unveiled its “Asia rebalance” policy, in which the President pledged in a November 2011 speech before the Australian Parliament that “as a Pacific nation, the United States will play a larger and long-term role in shaping this region and its future, by upholding core principles and in close partnership with our allies and friends.”  Despite a number of setbacks, President Obama can still lay the foundation for a vastly improved strategic posture for the United States in the Asia-Pacific if he follows through on the principles of the rebalance during his final two years in office.

Specifically, President Obama should work with Congress to:

Reinvigorate U.S. military power

Reverse dangerous defense cuts.  The Budget Control Act of 2011 (BCA) is on track to impose some $1 trillion in cuts to the defense budget over a ten-year period.  The bipartisan, congressionally-mandated National Defense Panel warned in its July 2014 report that these cuts “constitute a serious strategic misstep on the part of the United States” that “have prompted our current and potential allies and adversaries to question our commitment and resolve.” President Obama and the new Congress should heed the panel’s recommendation to repeal the BCA and “return as soon as possible to at least the funding baseline proposed in [former Secretary of Defense Robert] Gates’ FY 2012 defense budget,” as a first step to restoring America’s military readiness and credibility.

Support and empower allies in the face of Chinese aggression.  China’s rapid military modernization is, according to a draft copy of the bipartisan U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission, “altering the military balance of power in the Asia Pacific in ways that could engender destabilizing security competition between other major nearby countries, such as Japan and India, and exacerbate regional hotspots such as Taiwan, the Korean Peninsula, the East China Sea, and the South China Sea.”  In June 2013, eight Asia security policy experts recommended that the United States support a “networked” strategy among East Asian states in response to China’s rise, with a focus on fostering defense cooperation among America’s Asian-Pacific allies and partners, as well as encouraging countries like Japan as they realign their defense policy to contribute more to regional security. 

Defend and promote democracy and human rights

Support Hong Kong’s pro-democracy protesters. During his first stop in Beijing today, President Obama wasted an opportunity to voice his support for the Hong Kong people’s democratic aspirations and criticize China’s attempt to control entirely the territory’s system of government.  Largely avoiding the issue, the President said, “We don’t expect China to follow an American model in every instance, but we’re going to continue to have concerns about human rights.”  The protests in Hong Kong are focused on Beijing’s attempt to impose Iran-style “democracy” on the island, in which the central government would select candidates to run in future elections for Hong Kong’s chief election.  As FPI’s Ellen Bork noted last month, the Hong Kong people have expressed “great disappointment at the U.S. response” to China’s crackdown against protest, “They don’t see American support for their struggle as interference, and I don’t think we should either.”

Ensure Burma completes its democratic transition.  Burma took an important step in its democratic transition in 2010 when it released opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi from house arrest.  In 2012, her opposition party, the National League for Democracy, won several seats in the country’s parliament.  As Burma’s 2015 elections draw nearer, however, Suu Kyi is warning the United States that Burma’s reforms have stalled, and that the United States has been too optimistic about the leader’s willingness to embrace democracy. As many as 73 political prisoners remain in prison, and the government refuses to change its constitution so as to allow Suu Kyi to be a candidate for president.  The administration surrendered too much leverage by ending most sanctions against the Burmese government early in its transition. 

Though Burma’s leadership held a round-table meeting on October 31 with Suu Kyi and other political opposition figures and minority leaders, Suu Kyi lamented that it was stage-managed and insubstantial.  Mr. Obama is reportedly acquiescing to the government’s decision to bar Suu Kyi from running for Burma’s presidency, and instead urging that the 2015 election be "free, fair, open and credible.”  As David Kramer, President of Freedom House, said in a statement, “Having an election that is free, fair and credible means undoing requirements that actually undermine the legitimacy of elections and thus of the country.”  President Obama should insist on nothing less.

Advance free trade

Renew Trade Promotion Authority (TPA) and finalize the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP).  The TPP is a proposed free-trade agreement between the United States and 11 other Pacific nations.  These 12 countries are comprised of nearly 800 million consumers, with a combined GDP of over $28 trillion, and nearly a 40% share of the global economy.  A Peterson Institute analysis cited by the Office of the United States Trade Representative estimates that the United States will receive $77 billion in real income benefits per year if the TPP was approved, and that the agreement could generate an additional $123.5 billion in U.S. exports.

However, negotiations over the agreement began in September 2008, and it is unlikely that they will be completed soon.  A key reason, as Phil Levy, a member of the Policy Planning Staff in the Bush administration’s State Department and Senior Fellow at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, noted in July, is that TPA expired in 2007.  TPA fast-tracks Congressional debate on trade deals by holding them to an up-or-down vote.  Without TPA, trade agreements would be held to a normal approval process on Capitol Hill, and critical concessions that the U.S. policymakers made to secure an agreement with other nations could be amended away by U.S. lawmakers.  America’s negotiating partners are therefore reluctant to enter into critical negotiations without an assurance that the terms they struck at the negotiating table would be the final terms of the agreement.

The Republican gains in the House and Senate have resulted in a Congress that will be vastly more favorable to free trade than in recent years.  Levy reports that the there are reportedly enough votes to pass a clean TPA bill early in 2015.  President Obama would do well to work with lawmakers to ensure this happens.


The crises in the Middle East and Eastern Europe will largely dominate the President’s foreign policy throughout the remainder of his term.  Nonetheless, China’s rapid military modernization and increasingly provocative behavior in East Asia serve as reminder that the region cannot be put on a backburner.  This “Contest for Supremacy” between the United States and China will have enormous implications for not only the future of the Asia-Pacific security environment, but also the future of the rules-based global order that the United States built and strived to maintain for seven decades.  With this in mind, President Obama should lay the foundation for a balance of power in the Pacific that favors the United States and its democratic allies.

Mission Statement

The Foreign Policy Initiative seeks to promote an active U.S. foreign policy committed to robust support for democratic allies, human rights, a strong American military equipped to meet the challenges of the 21st century, and strengthening America’s global economic competitiveness.
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