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Has Obama Abandoned Asia? A Philippine Perspective

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As the U.S. battles its second government shutdown in recent decades, reviving the ugly memories of the 1995-96 Clinton-Gingrich impasse over fiscal issues, many in Asia are raising more fundamental questions regarding the country's status and claim to global leadership.

In a recent interview with the New York Times, I tried to encapsulate the deep sense of bewilderment and disappointment, especially among Southeast Asian states such as the Philippines, at President Obama's (understandable) decision to skip his much-awaited trip to Asia by raising some basic questions of wider strategic significance: "How can the United States be a reliable partner when President Obama can't get his own house in order... It makes people wonder: Is the United States really in the position to come to our [treaty allies such as Japan and the Philippines] aid in the event of a military conflict [say with China]?"

In response to such (admittedly provocative) comments, some American commentators such as Steve Benen have implied that I perhaps lack an appreciation for "the nuances of U.S. governmental structure, along with concepts such as separation of powers and co-equal branches of government."

But many in Asia do understand the complexities of governance in the U.S., or any matured democracy for that matter -- after all, as the world's leading power, the U.S. domestic politics attracts a disproportionate amount of time and energy among a considerable majority of policy wonks in Asia. This, however, doesn't dispel the fact that what we are witnessing today is the ugly side of American democracy and its cyclical partisan gridlock.

The strength of any democracy lies in the ability of its state institutions to balance pluralism with efficacy; what we instead see in Washington is the inability of the mainstream politicians to (a) keep the zealots at bay and (b) disallow ideological differences to compromise the collective interest. After all, the shutdown is mainly because of certain fringe elements within the GOP, who have held the entire state -- and broadly the global economic system -- hostage to sabotage an already-approved piece of legislation, which has been also vetted by the U.S. Supreme Court. No wonder many international observers have come to pejoratively liken Senator Ted Cruz, who is widely seen as the main culprit for the whole shutdown crisis, as "a cross between Joseph McCarthy, General Custer, the Joker, Miley Cyrus, and the Road Runner." And this is why many of us in Asia do understand Obama's decision to focus on the home front, trying to defend his signature accomplishment: the Affordable Care Act, a.k.a. Obamacare.

Nevertheless, many Asian allies (say the Philippines) and strategic partners (say Singapore and Brunei) have had a hard time containing their disappointment at Obama's absence in a spate of ongoing high-stakes summits in the Asia-Pacific region. Although the Republicans, notwithstanding their internal divisions, are expected to strike a deal before the October 17 debt ceiling deadline, the whole episode has laid bare America's deepening struggle with its internal demons just as the contours of the international system have become ever-more fluid and precarious.

Across Asia, there are growing questions over Washington's commitment and ability to maintain its leadership in a region that is increasingly the global center of economic and geopolitical gravity.

Overblown Expectations

It would be unfair to blame Asian allies for holding high expectations vis-à-vis the U.S. In many ways, the Obama administration itself has been raising expectations throughout Asia, culminating in his November 2011 speech before the Australian Parliament, which formally commenced the so-called U.S. "pivot to Asia."

"After a decade in which we fought two wars that cost us dearly, in blood and treasure, the United States is turning our attention to the vast potential of the Asia Pacific region," declared Obama before the Australian parliament, underscoring his administration's plan to decouple the U.S. from the Eurasian theatre and reap the benefits of a booming economic pie in the Pacific theatre. "As the world's fastest-growing region the Asia Pacific is critical to achieving my highest priority, and that's creating jobs and opportunity for the American people... and [the region] will largely define whether the century ahead will be marked by conflict or cooperation..."

Obama was far from alone in raising Asian expectations. During her high-profile term at the State Department, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, widely considered as the architect behind the pivot strategy, wasted no time in assuring allies and partners that the U.S. was determined to strengthen its strategic footprint in the region, not only through new trading agreements, i.e., the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) Free Trade Agreement, but also greater U.S. rotational military presence, with Japan, Singapore, Australia, and the Philippines as key regional spokes.

"At a time when the region is building a more mature security and economic architecture to promote stability and prosperity, U.S. commitment there is essential," wrote Hillary Clinton in her 2011 influential piece for the Foreign Policy magazine. "Just as Asia is critical to America's future, an engaged America is vital to Asia's future. The region is eager for our leadership and our business -- perhaps more so than at any time in modern history."

Both Obama and Clinton repeatedly mentioned freedom of navigation in the Western Pacific as well as existing defense treaties with Asian allies as the cornerstone of U.S.' national interest in the region. Never mind that the U.S never really left the region, that the Bush administration was successful in deepening strategic cooperation with Japan, China, and India amid the Global War on Terror (GWOT), and that the U.S. Navy has consistently maintained a major presence in the Western Pacific.

Put together, many regional allies took statements by Obama and Clinton as harbinger of a renewed, vigorous U.S.' engagement. For most people, containment of China was seen as the chief purpose of the new doctrine, and the fact that the TPP excluded China didn't help to dispel such suspicions. But obviously, the U.S.' existing regional footprint failed to deter China from pushing the boundaries of its territorial claims. And as the U.S.' anemic economic recovery undermined its aura of invincibility, China repeatedly flirted with naval confrontation against U.S. allies such as Japan and the Philippines. Even worse, Obama's explicit "pivot to Asia" endorsement emboldened hawks across the region to ramp up defense spending, shun serious diplomacy, and test the U.S.' expressed commitments.

Above all, many Asian leaders couldn't stop their annoyance at the repeated Middle Eastern crises consuming the Obama administration's energy, strategic imagination, and resources.

Obama Out, Xi In

Two years into the U.S.' pivot strategy, regional territorial conflicts seem ever more intractable. The U.S.-proposed TPP free trade agreement is most likely going to miss its 2013 target for finalization, and Washington's economic recovery could be undermined by an extended government shutdown.

The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), the main institutional driver of regional integration in East Asia, is also in no hurry to come up with a legally-binding Code of Conduct (CoC) to prevent violent confrontations in the Western Pacific. China is the ASEAN's largest trading partner, and it is far from clear whether ASEAN members are willing to collectively stand up to China, especially when their individual economic security -- except in the case of the Philippines -- is tied to Beijing.

Meanwhile, U.S.' allies such as the Philippines look more vulnerable than ever, as China reportedly expands its fortifications in occupied features in the South China Sea and refuses to meet the Filipino President Benigno Aquino III, unless Manila drops its plans to contest Chinese claims at The Hague and shun expanded U.S. military presence on its soil.

Far from decoupling from the Middle East, the Obama administration has been recently absorbed by a daunting mixture of strategic challenges: preventing the usage of chemical weapons in Syria, building ties with post-Morsi Egypt, reviving the Israeli-Palestine peace negotiations, and achieving a historic détente with Iran.

It was precisely within such atmosphere of deepening uncertainties and multiple distractions that Asian leaders -- many of them fence sitters with no particular preference for either Chinese or American hegemony -- curiously welcomed Obama's extensive tour across the region, visiting Indonesia (APEC Summit), Brunei (ASEAN Summit), Malaysia, and the Philippines.

The Asia trip was supposed to see Obama's reinvigorated pitch for the realization of the TPP -- currently facing a steep competition from the larger, China-backed Comprehensive Economic Partnership in East Asia trading agreement -- and deterrence against further instability in the Western Pacific.

In Obama's absence, the Chinese leader Xi Jinping took the center stage, becoming the first foreign leader to speak at Indonesia's parliament, delivering the keynote address at the APEC Summit, offering billions in infrastructure aid to the ASEAN, and visiting critical parties directly involved in the South China such as Malaysia.

Overall, what is increasingly clear is that China has been more than eager to fill in the U.S.' shoes, with much of the region baffled by how President Obama hasn't shown more eagerness to actualize his 'pivot to Asia' doctrine.