THE BLOG
11/20/2014 11:46 pm ET Updated Nov 21, 2014

Pivoting to Success: Is Obama's Progress in the Asia-Pacific and Elsewhere Enough?

With his eight-day tour of the Asia-Pacific, his affirmation of equality on the Internet, and his move to block mass deportations, President Barack Obama has some big post-election actions to point to as he seeks to rebound from the disaster of the mid-term elections. It's not moving the needle in polling yet, but it may over time.

Obama's Asia-Pacific summitry is the most complex and intriguing of the three areas of action, especially as that arena continued to reverberate this week. During an Asian economic summit meeting in Beijing and the G-20 summit in Brisbane, Australia, as well as a visit to Myanmar, Obama sought to refocus on his oft-distracted from Asia-Pacific Pivot.

He succeeded both in engaging China and in new steps to contain China. The U.S.-China climate deal is a big deal which can help jump-start stalled global negotiations next year. And Obama succeeded in getting agreement in other significant areas.


President Barack Obama closed his eight-day tour of the Asia-Pacific with a major address in Brisbane, Australia. There he recommitted the U.S. to the Asia-Pacific Pivot and announced a new $3 billion contribution to a fund to help poor nations with climate change.

Meanwhile, Obama also forged a new tripartite naval alliance with Japan and Australia even as Vietnam and the Philippines announced major moves -- Vietnam receiving new submarines and the Philippines announcing a new buildup of its scrawny forces -- to counter China's aggressiveness in the South China Sea.

Yet even with all this, Russia and China joined hands in just the last two days to announce a deepening of their ties. A new deal with Gazprom to supply China with natural gas for decades had already made the news. Now the Russian and Chinese navies will conduct joint exercises next year in the Pacific, which has happened before. And in the Mediterranean, a NATO lake, which decidedly has not happened before.

Most of the action, nonetheless, is on the American side of the ledger.

In a separate summitry at the G-20 confab in Brisbane, Australia, Obama -- meeting with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott -- forged a tripartite naval alliance between the U.S., Japan, and Australia.

The US and Japan have had such an alliance, as have the US and Australia. But now the three will coordinate with each other, in what is obviously a further development in the containment of China.

The PRC now has the world's third largest navy. But Japan has the world's fourth largest, bigger now than Britain's fabled Royal Navy. Russia has the second largest navy.

Which tells you that the US edge remains great, since the Russian Navy, the world's second largest, can't hope to challenge the Americans.

Australia's navy is only the 17th largest in total tonnage afloat. But it is much more sophisticated than many which rank above it in sheer size.

Between the Americans, Japanese, and Australians, there should be a well-coordinated naval force ranging from the North Pacific up near the Arctic Circle to the South Pacific approaching the Antarctic reaches. In today's terms, a naval force encompasses ships on the surface and below it, as well as air forces, manned and unmanned, and space forces for surveillance, communication, and coordination.

While the U.S. flashed some hard power, soft power predominated.

One little reported development from the summitry between Obama and President Xi is that China has not withdrawn from the international architecture which the US plays a preeminent role in.

Even as Beijing and Moscow make sounds that might be some "beautiful music together," China continues to adhere to the established Western-oriented global architecture.

Tariff breaks on hundreds of products, mostly information technology-oriented, new visa extensions, better rules of the road for maritime and aerial encounters in the Western Pacific, the climate deal, it all adds up to a win for Obama in keeping Xi engaged. And in making progress with that engagement.

On the other hand, Xi has clearly not dropped his own "Greater China" agenda. That agenda includes not only the wildly controversial claim of sovereignty over virtually the entire South China Sea but also a proposed regional security arrangement excluding the U.S., an Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank to compete with the World Bank and Asian Development Bank, and a rival Asia-Pacific trade pact to counter Obama's faltering drive for a Trans Pacific Partnership.

The biggest news of all, of course, is the climate deal.

For the climate deal does seem to be a big deal. The US, the European Union, and China account for most greenhouse gas emissions on the planet. With the rest of the U.S. having barely altered course to follow California's landmark lead on climate change under Governors Jerry Brown, Arnold Schwarzenegger, and Gray Davis -- which Brown has used in his own summitry with Xi and other top Chinese officials -- only the E.U. has made major reductions.

Now Obama has pledged to reduce emissions some 28 percent below 2005 levels by 2025. As for China, it has pledged to cap its emissions in 2030, and to further ramp up its zero-emission energy -- renewables and nuclear power -- to 20 percent of its total electric power generation. China also says it will shift more from dirty coal-fired generation to more benign natural gas generation.

All this is key to any future for the planet, because China has been growing its greenhouse gas emissions at better than seven percent per year. If that continues, it won't make any difference what the rest of the world does; it will be game over for the Earth's climate.

Now Xi has pledged to end that exponential growth scenario.

Talk of a big Obama comeback may be premature. But there is definitely proof of life.

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