Obama pivots policy toward Asia

May 2, 2012, 2:05 a.m.

China switched to a more aggressive “frown diplomacy” with its Southeast Asian neighbors in 2010 after previously following a “smile diplomacy,” according to Donald K. Emmerson, director of the Southeast Asia Forum at Stanford, who spoke Tuesday in Encina Hall.

Emmerson’s talk focused particularly on the South China Sea dispute between Asian nations and commented on U.S. involvement in the conflict.

The presentation’s title, “Obama’s Pivot Toward Asia: Implications, Repercussions, Complications,” was inspired by U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s article in Foreign Affairs in 2009, in which she urged the United States to invest diplomatically and economically in Asia, declaring that the future of world politics lies in the region.

“As the war in Iraq winds down and America begins to withdraw its forces from Afghanistan, the United States stands at a pivot point,” Clinton wrote.

Emmerson centered his talk on the idea of a “pivot” toward Asia, a new approach he said has been adopted by the Obama administration.

He cited several examples of this shift in focus, including Clinton’s choice to make Asia the destination for her first official trip abroad as secretary of state.

Quoting Clinton, who said “showing up is 50 percent,” Emmerson said that he was “struck that when Air Force One landed in Bali [for a 2010 summit], the Indonesian journalists applauded. Obama won tremendous kudos just for showing up.”

He also argued that even with a greater emphasis on multilateral relations, the current administration has intensified bilateral ties with countries that are a part of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN).

Emmerson warned, however, that with a “dramatic crisis in the Middle East” and a potential change in administration next year, there is a possibility that this “pivot” might not be a permanent part of U.S. policy.

“Part of the pivot idea I want to emphasize is that it is unclear if future administrations will have the same willingness to commit America to the same framework,” he said.

Highlighting a key turning point, Emmerson noted that “there was a pivot within the pivot in the Hanoi 2010 meeting.”

According to Emmerson, China contacted each ASEAN country individually prior to the meeting to ask them to leave the string of islands in the South China Sea, involved in territorial disputes between regional countries, off the agenda. This decision enraged ASEAN members.

At the meeting, however, Clinton called the South China Sea a matter of “national interest” for the United States, wanting to maintain free shipping in the area. The move deeply angered China, which retaliated by explicitly claiming sovereignty over the South China Sea.

This “display of muscular realpolitik-ism” on the part of the Chinese was not well received by ASEAN countries, Emmerson said, and therefore gave the “pivot” a tremendous boost.

“This pivot has provided ASEAN with greater perceived leverage towards China,” he said.

According to Emmerson, one of the least noticed outcomes of this incident is that China has softened its initial position that it would only negotiate South China Sea disputes bilaterally with ASEAN countries.

Emmerson stressed caution on treating ASEAN as a bloc, stating that each country has its own policies and interests, although he did say all are wary of China.

“Vietnam has a history of resisting China, and that history isn’t about to disappear,” he said. “Historically, Indonesia, too, has shown suspicions or even downright animosity towards China.”

In addition to maritime issues, Emmerson discussed security in the region.

“One key question is to what extent China can translate economic might into a security presence,” he said. “Their ability to make this shift has been limited and slow.”

According to Emmerson, most Southeast Asian countries are reluctant to share intelligence or cooperate on security with China.

Another aspect of the dynamics of the U.S.-China-Southeast Asia triangle is economic diplomacy, according to Emmerson. He said a free trade agreement between China and ASEAN introduced in the beginning of 2010 caused trade to leap by 50 percent that year.

“Many in Southeast Asia go to China for sales and go to Washington for ships,” he said, referring to the presence of the U.S. Seventh Fleet in the region.

He added that the United States should be aware that domestic developments in ASEAN countries could affect political relations.

Emmerson ended his talk on a diplomatic note, saying, “On balance I would say that this pivot is positive for the U.S. and for Asia.”

Questions that followed the talk covered a range of topics, from the impact that succession in China next year could have on diplomatic relations to the legitimacy of China’s maritime claims in the region.

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