Skip to content

America’s first ‘Pacific President’

Pres­i­dent Obama’s four-​​day, three-​​country tour of South­east Asia ear­lier this month exem­pli­fied his administration’s ongoing for­eign policy pivot from the Middle East to Asia. In his first post­elec­tion over­seas trip—which com­prised meet­ings and press con­fer­ences with leaders in Cam­bodia, Thai­land and Myanmar—Obama billed him­self as “America’s first Pacific pres­i­dent,” and noted that the U.S. views the region as essen­tial to Amer­ican “growth and pros­perity.” We asked Suzanne Ogden, an expert in U.S. policy in Asia and a pro­fessor of polit­ical sci­ence in the Col­lege of Social Sci­ences and Human­i­ties, to explain the social, polit­ical and eco­nomic ram­i­fi­ca­tions of the his­toric trip.

One international studies expert in China noted that the country “can’t be contained” and called the Obama administration’s foreign policy pivot to Asia “a very stupid choice.” President Obama, on the other hand, has said, “The Pacific will sculpt the future of the U.S.” In what ways would fostering a stronger working relationship between Asia and America shape Obama’s presidential legacy?

Pres­i­dent Obama’s policy is not an effort to “con­tain” China. The term “con­tain­ment” is used by people locked into the mindset of the Cold War and the con­fronta­tion with com­mu­nism. The U.S. is, how­ever, con­cerned about the growing number of con­flicts between China and other Asian coun­tries over islands in the region, and it does not want these to blow up into full-​​scale con­flicts. The U.S. also wants to address the con­cern of Asian coun­tries that America left Asia after it lost the war in Vietnam in 1975.

While a con­cern about the mil­i­tary bal­ance of power in Asia is one ele­ment in our very deep and very com­plex rela­tion­ship with China, in most respects the Sino-​​American rela­tion­ship has grown stronger over the years. We work with, not against, the Chi­nese on almost every imag­in­able problem, from Interpol, drug traf­ficking, pro­tecting sea lanes and world health, to legal reforms within China itself. Under the Obama admin­is­tra­tion, the U.S. has at long last stopped lec­turing the Chi­nese as to what they should do and has devel­oped a quite healthy rela­tion­ship with China.

A report in The New York Times identified Asia as the “region of the future,” and noted that that area will account for approximately 50 percent of the world’s economic growth outside the U.S. over the next five years. Aside from courting countries like Thailand, Cambodia and Myanmar, which the Obama administration has promised $170 million over the next two years, what can the U.S. do to affirm its economic power in the Pacific?

It would be better to say that Asia is the “region of the present.” The economies of Asian coun­tries are growing rapidly, and although Thai­land, Vietnam and Sin­ga­pore have become major investors in South­east Asia, China’s invest­ment is enor­mous and will ulti­mately dwarf the invest­ment of others. China and the U.S. are each trying to form their own regional trade and eco­nomic alliances in the region, which is rich in nat­ural resources. China clearly has an advan­tage: It can have its state-​​owned cor­po­ra­tions go into neigh­boring coun­tries and build road, rail­roads, ports and air­ports and then have its heavily state-​​invested cor­po­ra­tions go in to set up busi­nesses in these coun­tries. Of course, these coun­tries are on China’s doorstep, not on ours, and the Chi­nese far better under­stand Asian polit­ical and busi­ness cul­ture than Amer­i­cans do. Amer­ican busi­nesses have much less sup­port from the U.S. government.

It cer­tainly has done little for Amer­ican eco­nomic power to have the U.S. for­bid­ding Amer­ican busi­nesses to invest in Myanmar from 1988 until this year. This policy has allowed China to gain the upper hand eco­nom­i­cally in Myanmar — and in Cam­bodia and Laos. It is a pity that even though we know from the U.S. rela­tion­ship with China that “engage­ment” works far better than trying to punish coun­tries for their human rights poli­cies by boy­cotting trade with them, the U.S. gov­ern­ment con­tinues to try to change gov­ern­ments’ poli­cies through eco­nomic instruments.

Foreign policy experts suggest that Asia’s overwhelming reliance on oil produced in the Middle East would make it impossible for the U.S. to retreat from its relationship with the Arab region. In your opinion, how will the Obama administration’s so-called “pivot to Asia” alter its view on its relationship with the Middle East?

The U.S. has long had a com­mit­ment to pro­tect the world’s sea lanes for trade, including trade in oil. It is hard to imagine we will ever relin­quish that role, not because of Asia’s reliance on Middle Eastern oil but because of the entire world’s reliance on oil, and trade, whether from the Mideast or elsewhere.

In the last few years, how­ever, U.S. explo­ration of shale oil has allowed it to become far less depen­dent on the supply of Middle Eastern oil. That in itself has made it easier for the U.S. to ‘pivot’ from the Mideast to Asia. The fact that the U.S. “piv­oted,” rather than paying more atten­tion to Asia while not dimin­ishing our focus on the Middle East, per­haps indi­cates a belief that the resources — and prob­lems — of Asia are becoming more impor­tant to us than Middle Eastern oil and problems.

– by Jason Kornwitz

More Stories

Photo of the Capitol Building at night

High stakes for politics, SCOTUS in 2018

Photo of the crashed truck that was used in the October 31st attack in Manhattan.

Weaponizing Language: How the meaning of “allahu akbar” has been distorted

Northeastern logo

Why I love studying Spanish