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Has Obama Already Forgotten About Asia?

02/10/2014 08:57 pm ET | Updated Apr 12, 2014

Last year was a tough time for President Obama. The health care roll-out was plagued by website malfunctions. His ambivalent approach to intervening in Syria satisfied neither hawks nor doves. Congress stalled on major legislation like immigration reform. And the leaks by Edward Snowden revealed that the National Security Agency was spying on American citizens, a major embarrassment for the administration.

In his State of the Union address last month, the president tried to put 2013 behind him and lay out his plans for the rest of his term in office. Much of the hour-long speech focused on the U.S. economy and the presidential push for a higher minimum wage and extension of unemployment insurance. He appeared to give up on his earlier hopes of gaining bipartisan approval for his plans. Instead, on such issues as the minimum wage, Obama vowed to issue executive orders, bypassing Congress.

Given the president's desire to focus on the economy, he devoted a surprising amount of time in the State of the Union to foreign policy. Of course, most of this discussion of global issues was couched in economic terms. On trade policy, for instance, he said, "We need to work together on tools like bipartisan trade promotion authority to protect our workers, protect our environment and open new markets to new goods stamped 'Made in the USA.'" Another natural connection was energy policy, with the president promising to grow the renewable energy sector to improve both the global climate and the U.S. economy. Finally, the president renewed his pledge to pass immigration reform to "grow our economy and shrink our deficits by almost $1 trillion in the next two decades."

But perhaps the most important feature of the president's approach to foreign policy was his statement that "America must move off a permanent war footing." It's not the first time that Obama has declared his opposition to an eternal war against terrorism. But after removing all troops from Iraq, scheduling the departure of nearly all U.S. soldiers from Afghanistan at the end of this year, and holding back from launching strikes against Syria, the president's statement now has more force behind it. Not long after Obama promised in his speech to put "prudent limits on the use of drones," news broke that the United States had sharply cut back on strikes in Pakistan to give the government there more leeway in its negotiations with the Taliban.

Obama also put the emphasis on diplomacy. He highlighted the recent deal with Iran that has eased international sanctions in exchange for Tehran limiting its nuclear program and also mentioned the ongoing reduction of Syria's chemical weapon program. He went on to stress economic development, political alliances, and cultural exchanges.

Finally, after all this talk of world affairs, it was time for the president to address the Asia-Pacific region. Obama, in this most important speech of his second term, devoted a single sentence to Asia. That was all. After all the buzz about "Pacific pivots" and "strategic realignments," the president mentioned the region almost as an afterthought at the end of his discussion of U.S. global partnerships:

"We will continue to focus on the Asia-Pacific, where we support our allies, shape a future of greater security and prosperity and extend a hand to those devastated by disaster, as we did in the Philippines, when our Marines and civilians rushed to aid those battered by a typhoon, and were greeted with words like, 'We will never forget your kindness' and 'God bless America.'"

There was no mention of South Korea or Japan, Thailand or Australia, the Marines moving to Guam or the challenge of North Korea.

President Obama is slated to return to Asia in April, where he plans to visit Japan, the Philippines, and Malaysia. No doubt the president will reiterate at that time that the United States fully intends to shift its focus from the Middle East and Central Asia to the Pacific.

But the truth is that the "Pacific pivot" was never really much more than an advertising campaign designed to warn China and reassure Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, and others in the region that the United States has not forgotten them. It is a rebranding of relatively modest actions that the United States has long been planning, primarily a move of U.S. Marines from an aging facility in Okinawa to bases in other countries. Even this modest plan has encountered major resistance. The voters in the Okinawan city of Nago recently reelected a mayor on a platform of opposing the nearby construction of a Futenma replacement facility. Nor is the pivot made any easier by the fact that Japan and South Korea continue to spar over a disputed island and a disputed interpretation of 20th century history. And the economic centerpiece of the pivot -- the Trans-Pacific Partnership -- has met with considerable skepticism in the U.S. Congress.

At the same time, it's not been easy for the United States to reduce its focus on the Middle East and Central Asia. Negotiations with Afghan President Hamid Karzai over the retention of some U.S. troops in his country after 2014 have not been going well. Iraq is descending back into a civil war. The conflict in Syria has resisted compromise. And Secretary of State John Kerry has his hands full trying to achieve the impossible -- a new Israeli-Palestinian agreement.

The remaining three years of the Obama administration will likely follow the script of this year's State of the Union. The bulk of the president's attention will be on the domestic economy. He will look at foreign policy largely through the lens of improving economic indicators. He will emphasize diplomacy, but most of this energy will continue to go to the Middle East.

Iran is in the news. So is Syria and Israel and Iraq. Even though it is the most populous and economically vibrant area of the world, Asia will continue to be an afterthought for the Obama administration, pivot or no pivot.

Originally published in Hankyoreh.