WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama’s bid to focus U.S. attention on Asia has failed to meet the lofty expectations he set three years ago in a grand pronouncement that the new emphasis would become a pillar of his foreign policy.
The result, as Obama prepares to travel to the region next week, has been a loss of confidence among some U.S. allies about the administration’s commitment at a time of escalating regional tensions. Relations between Japan and South Korea are at a low point not seen since World War II, and China has provoked both with aggressive maritime actions despite a personal plea to Beijing from Vice President Joe Biden in December.
“Relations have gone from being generally positive at the strategic level among the great powers to extremely difficult,” said Kurt Campbell, a former assistant secretary of state who helped conceive the Asia strategy. “It’s a much more challenging strategic landscape.”
In a glitzy rollout in the fall of 2011, Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton announced that the United States would “pivot” away from long, costly wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and ramp up engagement to meet China’s rise.
Instead, over the past year, the administration has been drawn deeper into crises in traditional hot spots in the Middle East and Eastern Europe. Congressional Democrats blocked Obama’s bid to speed up talks on a 12-nation Pacific free-trade pact at the core of a policy that aims to balance military realignment with economic initiatives.
And Obama canceled participation in two Asian summits because of the government shutdown last fall.
White House aides say they are confident that the president will re-energize his Asia strategy by visiting seven countries this year — Japan, South Korea, Malaysia and the Philippines next week and China, Burma and Australia in the fall. Obama met with the leaders of the three East Asian nations on the sidelines of a nuclear summit in Europe last month.
“Showing up matters a lot in Asia. The good news is that it’s pretty easily fixable,” said Benjamin Rhodes, a deputy national security adviser. “We have the benefit of knowing what success will look like — and if we achieve it, people will think it was worth it.”
Despite that optimism, there is a feeling outside the administration that the energy and enthusiasm that marked the launch of the policy has been lost with the departures early last year of Clinton and national security adviser Thomas Donilon. Their successors, John Kerry and Susan Rice, respectively, have been focused foremost on conflicts in Ukraine and Syria, a Middle East peace pact, and Iran’s nuclear program.
“For a lot of reasons, none egregiously negligent, it adds up to us not being there,” said Michael O’Hanlon, a defense analyst at the Brookings Institution. “Perceptions are everything, and now the whole idea of the rebalance is at risk.”
A few days into her tenure as the nation’s top diplomat, Clinton held a dinner for her closest advisers on the ornate eighth floor of the State Department with some longtime Asia policy hands, including author Orville Schell.
The message was clear: After a decade of war, there would be a new emphasis. It was a view in sync with Obama’s thinking. The president had already instructed his national security staff to conduct a review of the military’s global footprint.
The conclusion of the review, Donilon recalled in an interview, was that “at the very same time that Asia was undergoing the most dramatic social and economic development in the history of the world, the United States was overwhelmingly focused on military efforts in the Middle East.”
For a president with roots in Hawaii and Indonesia, a turn to Asia made sense. In February 2009, Clinton’s first trip as secretary of state was to Asia, and Obama welcomed Japan’s Taro Aso as his first foreign leader to visit the White House.
Underpinning the renewed focus on Asia was the realization that China was moving to fill the vacuum of U.S. inattention to the region. China’s view in 2008 and 2009 was that an “arrogant” United States had been knocked down by the recession and “there’s a new sheriff in town and it’s China,” said Campbell, Clinton’s top Asia strategist.
On Obama’s first Asia trip, in November 2009, Chinese President Hu Jintao embarrassed the White House by rejecting the administration’s demands on China’s currency manipulation and refusing to allow questions at a joint news conference.
“It turned into a metaphor for us supposedly kowtowing to the Chinese,” recalled Jeffrey Bader, director of Asia affairs for the National Security Council from 2009 to 2011. “The White House was not going to let that narrative recur.”
Clinton laid the groundwork for a more confrontational U.S. stance with China when, on a trip to Vietnam in July 2010, she declared that resolving a territorial dispute between Southeast Asian nations and China in the South China Sea was a “leading diplomatic priority.”
By the following year, administration officials agreed it was time for a bold recalibration of their Asia policy.
As White House staffers plotted a presidential trip to Asia in the fall of 2011, Campbell arranged for Clinton to pen a cover story in Foreign Policy magazine.
Clinton’s 5,600-word treatise, titled “America’s Pacific Century,” was published in October, a month before Obama’s nine-day trip, and it was the first public signal of the administration’s “pivot” — a word Clinton used three times — to the region.
A chief aim, aides said, was to enlist Beijing as a partner on the global stage by demanding that it live up to its responsibilities as a rising world power.
Clinton also reaffirmed traditional alliances, pledged greater U.S. economic investment, emphasized democratic values and vowed to pursue new multilateral organizations, especially in Southeast Asia, to mitigate conflicts.
The essay, followed by Obama’s trip, aimed to “grab people by the lapels” and “communicate to them, ‘This is what we really care about; this is what you should judge us on,’ ” Rhodes said.
Several Asia initiatives were ripening in different government agencies, and the White House packaged them together for the president to unveil.
Obama pledged in Hawaii that the U.S. would play a lead role in negotiations over the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a large-scale, multi-nation free-trade pact. In Australia, he announced plans for a rotating contingent of 2,500 Marines to be based in Darwin.
“The United States has been, and always will be, a Pacific nation,” Obama said in an address to the Australian Parliament.
On his final stop, at the East Asia Summit in Bali, Indonesia, Obama made the biggest splash — announcing that Clinton would become the first U.S. secretary of state to visit the long-isolated nation of Burma in 50 years. The dramatic gesture was given the green light only after Obama called democratic opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi from Air Force One en route to Bali to win her blessing.
“This was a high-wire act,” said Campbell, who helped negotiate with Burma’s ruling military leaders. “It required real, hard behind-the-scenes diplomacy.”
A year later, in November 2012, Clinton made a second trip there, this time aboard Air Force One with Obama.
Since then, China has become convinced that the U.S. strategy is aimed primarily at containing its rising influence.
Obama, hoping for a fresh start with China’s Xi Jinping, who succeeded Hu last year, invited him to the Sunnylands Estate in Rancho Mirage, Calif., in June — a setting picked for its relaxed atmosphere.
But in the fall, Beijing declared an air defense zone above contested waters in the East China Sea, provoking angry responses from Japan and South Korea. Last week, during a visit to Beijing, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel traded barbs with his Chinese counterpart, who declared that China’s military “can never be contained.”
The Pentagon announced in 2012 that it intended to have 60 percent of its naval and Air Force assets in the Asia-Pacific region by 2020. And with Democrats slowing the trade pact amid election-year pushback from labor unions, a critical Senate Foreign Relations Committee report this week concluded that the administration’s Asia strategy has become viewed in the region as military-focused.
The State Department devotes just 8 percent of its diplomatic engagement budget to its Asia-Pacific bureaus and 4 percent of aid money to a region which accounts for 33 percent of the world’s population, the report found.
“Sweeping speeches and policy pronouncements unsupported by hard deliverables create a large gap between expectations and reality,” according to the analysis, overseen by the committee chairman, Sen. Robert Menendez, D-N.J.
Administration officials point to new strategic partnerships with Indonesia and Vietnam and a deal with Japan on the contentious issue of relocating a Marine air base.
But Bader, now at the Brookings Institution, said the administration still must make clear whether its strategy is “about containing China, hedging against China, or is it about participating in and benefiting from the most dynamic area of the world? The administration says the latter, but many continue to argue for the former.”
The stakes are perhaps as high for Clinton as Obama. As she weighs a White House bid in 2016, her supporters have cited the Asia strategy as one of her most significant accomplishments.
On the wall of his office, Campbell keeps a framed photo of Obama and Clinton posing with their aides on Air Force One as they descend into Burma. The inscription, from the president, reads: “Thanks for years of outstanding work on our pivot to Asia.”
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Washington Post staff writer Ernesto Londono contributed to this report.