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
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
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.