The New York Post
October 25, 2016
As secretary of state, Hillary Clinton coined the term “pivot to Asia.” President Obama adopted it as his soundest national-security goal. Yet now Asia is steadily pivoting away from us.
The State Department’s top Asia hand, Daniel Russel, visited Manila on Monday in an attempt to smooth relations with the Philippines, one of America’s longest and most important Pacific allies. He told reporters that recent comments by the country’s president cause “consternation in a number of countries, not only in mine.”
Consternation. Agita. Distress. Astonishment: President Rodrigo Duterte can cause all this — and then some. Here, he evokes Hitler’s policies on Jews as a model for dealing with his country’s drug addicts. There, he calls Obama a “son of a whore.”
In this case, Russel was referring to Duterte’s announcement, during a visit to Beijing a week ago, of a “separation” from the United States and an alliance, instead, with China and Russia.
Russel isn’t the first American official to publicly take the mercurial Manila leader to task. Back in July, shortly after Duterte’s election, Obama gave him a long lecture on human rights. (Funny: Our new “allies,” Iran and Cuba, rarely hear such lectures.)
As a presidential candidate, Duterte had sought to appeal to anti-American sentiments, so maybe Obama had grounds to be angry. Yet, to paraphrase President Dwight Eisenhower, Duterte may be a son of a bitch, but the Philippines has long been our SOB. Our two nations signed a defense treaty back in the middle of the last century, and our forces in the Philippines’ Subic Bay are a prominent US military presence in the Pacific.
True, last week the Philippines’ loose-cannon-in-chief walked back his “separation” statement somewhat, after realizing too many of his country businesses rely on US relations for their livelihood.
Yet the underlying dynamics in the region are, for now, as strong as ever; Duterte himself may be nutty as a loon, but bowing to China may not be so irrational for his country.
Consider: Under China’s Xi Jinping, Beijing is ratcheting up its bid to dominate the region, using its economic prowess to coerce neighbors and projecting its growing military might. China has been breezily swiping assets from its neighbors and creating facts on the ground — in the ocean and over airspace — while disregarding territorial claims by others.
America has conducted some joint naval exercises with regional allies, attempting to remind Beijing that we’re still the superior power. But this wasn’t enough for Xi to end its expansionism. So Obama advised China’s neighbors to turn to international arbitration to resolve their disputes with China.
Pointless advice: In July, a Hague tribunal — sure enough — favored the Philippines in a dispute over a part of the South China Sea, which Beijing considers to be its exclusively owned private lake. The ruling: Most of the disputed area, the Scarborough Shoal, belongs to the Philippines.
Yet, while the Hague jurists flash their international badges, Beijing has no use for them. China never recognized the tribunal’s jurisdiction. Instead, it considers its superior military power the law of the land.
And beyond going the international-arbitration route, America has no Plan B. So our old Pacific allies, as well as would-be new ones, now seek to cut deals directly with Beijing.
This may be humiliating, frustrating and disadvantageous for these countries, but China is emerging as the big new boss on the block; its neighbors have no choice but to deal with it.
Obama had made a strong effort to counter China’s economic dominance, negotiating a mega trade deal with our Pacific allies. But, alas, he didn’t sufficiently negotiate that deal, the Trans Pacific Partnership, with Americans. Today, TPP is all but dead: It has become a presidential campaign bogeyman, with Donald Trump railing against it and Clinton following suit.
After the former secretary of state left office, Obama gave her “pivot” a new name. “Pacific rebalancing” sounds more academic and less catchy, but it’s still a sound idea: America’s relations with the Asia-Pacific region will grow in importance in coming decades. Addressing that will be high on the next president’s to-do list.
In the presidential debates, Clinton, now the apparent front-runner, showed a remarkable ability to pivot from difficult questions. If elected, she’ll need to marshal all her advertised disdain to ideological rigidity (she was for the TPP before she was against it), pivot back to Asia and repair our shaky relations. That is, she’ll need to pivot away from Obama’s all talk-no action approach.
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