WASHINGTON -- China may be the centerpiece of the Obama administration’s second-term foreign policy agenda, with U.S. strategists trying to avoid entanglement in Syria or Mali in order to stay focused on a vision of reasserting the American presence in Asia.
But getting sucked back into Middle East and North African conflicts isn’t the only risk to the administration’s so-called “Asia pivot”: The United States still hasn’t found the right tone for its dealings with China, say analysts who specialize in Asia-Pacific issues.
Analysts say the United States remains too involved in the region’s territorial disputes, especially as it helps nations organize into an anti-China bloc in talks over contested islands in the South China Sea that are of little or no strategic value. Elsewhere, the American administration still has to win over nations that are reluctant to risk the economic punishment of being seen as allied with a U.S. strategy to constrain China’s rise.
“If you stand still in Asia, you’re going to fall behind the rise of China,” said Robert S. Ross, a professor of Chinese foreign policy at Boston College. “We’re not going to stand still, but we can improve our rhetoric and disentangle from these territorial disputes.”
Obama, who’s sometimes called the “first Pacific president” because of his childhood years in Indonesia and his upbringing in Hawaii, clearly has the political will to make Asia the focus of U.S. policy. More than half of American naval assets are deployed in the region, the administration has signed fresh defense agreements with Asian partners and there’s been a marked increase in high-profile U.S. state visits to promote trade and diplomacy.
In November, Obama made a historic trip to the former pariah state of Myanmar, his fourth high-profile visit to Asia in as many years, and his secretaries of state and defense, Hillary Clinton and Leon Panetta, have been frequent visitors, as have numerous more junior diplomats and defense officials.
“There’s no comparison,” said Daniel Sneider, the associate director for research at the Walter H. Shorenstein Asia-Pacific Research Center at Stanford University in California, commenting on the Obama administration’s approach versus that of its predecessor. “These guys have been there. They’ve thought about it more. They have a broad strategy.”
Sneider, however, saw risk to that strategy in the pull of crises elsewhere. “It has to be backed up by devoting real resources in the end,” he said of an Asia focus. “Any new engagement of U.S. forces in the Middle East will immediately undermine this policy.”
Even in tightly knit Washington policymaking circles, there’s confusion over how to pursue this new Asia focus, starting with what to call it.
A first suggestion, “forward-deployed diplomacy,” was jettisoned as too militaristic, especially when it comes to prickly superpower China. Then came “the Asia pivot,” which rankled Middle Eastern and European allies, who thought it suggested abandonment of their regions. The White House now prefers “the rebalancing,” while some policymakers are starting to use the blunter “return to Asia.”