Flip flopping Asian pivot

is the subject of my Trade Tripper column in the recent weekend issue of BusinessWorld:

Time was when the US was actually faulted for being too certain in its place in the world. Those days are gone. From being the world’s take-charge guy, the US transformed itself to this apologetic and clingy entity, until morphing to its present incarnation of earnest student council “intellectual” preferring to debate rather than act (hell freezing be damned).

Things have certainly changed. Today’s top area of discussion is US President Barack Obama’s cancellation of his Asian tour (which included a four-nation swing, among them the Philippines) and, ultimately, his decision to skip the APEC summit, the East Asia summit, and the first US-ASEAN meet. Admittedly, he had a pretty good excuse in the government shutdown. On the other hand, it does render evidence of his claimed “Asian pivot” rather slim.

The cancellation comes on the heels of what appears to be a reduction of military presence in Asia. Bruce Klingner, writing for Newscom (“Give the Marines a Kabar, Not a FUBAR”; 26 September 2013), states that: “Claims that U.S. forces in the Pacific will be immune from duties elsewhere or budget cuts simply don’t hold water. Despite an increase of 100,000 ground troops during the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts, U.S. soldiers and Marines were removed from Asia to serve in those wars. Pacific Command forces are already being impacted by funding shortfalls. One in three U.S. Air Force combat aircraft worldwide are already grounded, and two Navy ships in the Pacific-a submarine and a guided missile destroyer-can’t leave port because of a lack of funding.”

The lessening of military strength in Asia should be contrasted with Mr. Obama’s interest in Africa, thus raising suspicions of an “African shift” rather than an “Asian pivot” (see The Atlantic, “Are We Pivoting to Africa Rather Than Asia?”, 6 October 2013). This summer alone, Mr. Obama made trips to Senegal, South Africa, and Tanzania, aside from increasing overall troop presence in the area.

And even the fact of a government shutdown could also be taken as evidence of American vacillation that may have Asian repercussions. As Peter Drysdale (“Asia gets on with it while America’s out of play”, East Asia Forum, 7 October 2013) correctly points out: “If the foundations of a functioning government are compromised at home, as they are so obviously now, America’s allies, friends and opponents alike must naturally question the credibility of its commitments around the world.”

So observers, particularly in Asia, could be forgiven for wondering why Mr. Obama seems to be content in letting go of US dominant status in the Asian region, allowing a China or a North Korea have their unimpeded way.

Although that may not necessarily happen. According to Zachary Keck (“The International Causes of America’s Political Dysfunction”), the US’ seeming absence of direction could be attributed to precisely that lack of competition. As he puts it: “Basically, in the post-Cold War era, America has lacked an international peer competitor to unify around.Social psychologists have long discussed the importance of out-groups in the formation and maintenance of in-group cohesion. We define who we are in no small part by who we are not. All things being equal, the greater the perceived threat from the out-group, the more unified the in-group will be. For a country as large and diverse as the United States, an out-group can be especially important for unity.”

Thus, the possibility that China’s insistence in being the neighborhood bully might be the perfect antidote to US’ lackadaisical Asian stance. Ironically, it is Mr. Obama’s seeming indecisiveness that could actually propel a revival (unfortunately only at the long term) of American attention to the Pacific.That, coupled with Japan’s resurgence.

Which is a distant silver lining of sorts for the Philippines. It really needs US support now, particularly in its territorial problems with an incorrigible China. The Philippines is attempting a brave face, declaring its recent interest in moving forward with a Philippine-European Free Trade Association trade agreement. Even as consolation, however, for our inability to progress with our stated desire to be part of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (which includes the US, not China), the same should also be coupled with the news (reported by this column) of the US allowing Philippine GSP privileges to expire.

Mr. Obama’s no-show thus not only complicates negotiations for the TPP but also pushes the Philippines towards the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (which includes China, but not the US). This leaves the Philippines in the bizarre position of having no deals with a supposed ally (the US) but doing so with a country (China) that seeks to take territory away from us (aside from executing Filipinos on a now regular basis).

So, unless Mr. Obama truly accepts and pushes the idea of American exceptionalism or China suddenly comes to its senses (both highly unlikely), the Philippines needs to brace itself with being alone in foreign policy for the next three years.