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Obama’s Asian ‘pivot’ went flying off like a divot

by Curtis S. Chin

Exit the Snake. Enter the Horse. U.S. President Barack Obama and Prime Minister Shinzo Abe may understandably have very different views of the year behind us, as Asia ushers in the Year of the Horse.

The protests, praise and comments were certainly fast and furious, after the decision was made about who had the worst 2013 in Asia. “Obama did.” Or so declared the online headline in a Fortune opinion piece I wrote with much debate and discussion with Jose B. Collazo, a regular commentator on Southeast Asia. In marked contrast, we gave the “best year” award to Abe.

“I know it is good to be provocative, but Obama having the worst year in Asia is a bit of stretch,” wrote one reader. “Well done,” said another. “Someone needed to call Obama out for his ‘all show no go’ behavior so far this term.”

But what of disgraced Chinese politician Bo Xilai, now jailed for life for bribery, embezzlement and abuse of power?

Or former Pakistan president and military leader Pervez Musharraf, newly freed from house arrest but still facing a series of criminal allegations following what so far has been a disastrous homecoming from self-imposed exile in London to try to run for office this past May?

Or how about the senior leadership of Tokyo Electric Power Co. still struggling with the aftermath of the 2011 earthquake and tsunami that devastated their nuclear power plant in Fukushima, or even the long-suffering Chinese consumer, faced with suspect food and polluted air and water at every turn.

As Collazo and I wrote in Fortune, the candidates for worst year in Asia were many — from Thailand’s Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra and her ongoing struggles with tens of thousands of demonstrators on her very doorsteps, to then-Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard who was swept, along with her party, out of office in September elections despite all of her talk of Australia and the “Asian Century.”

Our best and worst list, once written, also faced the challenges of the end-of-year news cycle. Should Abe’s controversial late-December visit to Yasakuni Shrine take him down a rank or two? What of the overseas Asian worker, whether from the Philippines, Bangladesh or Nepal?

The yearend saw U.S.-India relations shaken up by a diplomatic dispute involving treatment of an Indian diplomat arrested in New York and now facing allegations that she was underpaying her Indian-born domestic helper.

Earlier in December, Chris Cillizza of The Washington Post had given the U.S. president the dubious distinction of worst year in Washington, citing a year dominated by scandals, leaks of classified information, and the failed launch of a U.S. federal health insurance exchange that went to the heart of Obama’s signature first-term domestic legislative achievement, “Obamacare,” the so-called Affordable Care Act.

So, what of the view from Washington on who had the worst year in 2013 when it comes to Asia? In Washington-centric Washington, the award went once again, we wrote, to one of its own: President Obama had the worst year in Asia.

Obama won this second dubious distinction for failing to add substance to style in the once much ballyhooed “pivot to Asia,” and ceding the initiative to others on everything from Myanmar to quite literally the Moon. In December, Asia watched with a mix of pride, envy and trepidation as China successfully landed a spacecraft on the lunar surface.

As with so much else, 2013 began with much promise and hope for the U.S. president in Asia. Fresh off his re-election, Obama closed out 2012 with a landmark visit to Myanmar and the lifting or suspension of a range of sanctions against that once pariah nation.

Asia longed for his return, symbolic though it might have been, as this past year unfolded, and a more robust pivot, or “rebalancing,” of U.S. efforts in Asia that went beyond defense and diplomacy. That never came to pass, as Obama became a serial canceller in a region where form, face and protocol especially matter.

Amid battles over the U.S. budget, he canceled long-planned stops in the Philippines, a long-time U.S. ally, and in Malaysia, which was playing host to an entrepreneurship summit building off of an initiative Obama had announced at his “A New Beginning” speech delivered with great fanfare in June 2009 in Cairo.

Then he canceled his entire Asia trip, including participation in key regional summits in Indonesia and Brunei, ceding the stage to China. The Asia pivot was seen as more about presentation than implementation. Or as one Asia diplomat was reported to have quipped after Obama’s cancellation, “There’s just one problem with the U.S. ‘pivot-to-Asia’ strategy. The U.S. is not part of it.”

Bogged down by a recalcitrant U.S. Congress as well as by problems of his own making, including perceived indecisiveness on Syria, and just plain bad luck — Edward Snowden’s revelations of the extent of National Security Agency’s spying operations even as Obama sought to raise the issue of Chinese spying at a California summit with China’s leader — Obama’s really bad year went beyond health care and America’s borders.

All is not lost, though. There is still time to turn around the situation. In Japan, progress has been made on long-standing issues related to the U.S. military presence on Okinawa, and U.S. Ambassador to Japan Caroline Kennedy has brought star power to the post.

Talks toward a Trans-Pacific Partnership free trade agreement continue, the U.S. president is expected in the region in the spring, and China’s increasing assertiveness in the region is driving Asian nations closer to the United States.

The opportunity remains for Obama to leverage the tremendous amount of good will that remains in Asia toward America and Americans, and to work with U.S. congressional leaders of both parties to add substance to rhetoric in shaping and funding a pivot that goes well beyond defense and diplomacy to fully encompass business, culture and education.

Curtis S. Chin, a former U.S. ambassador to the Asian Development Bank under Presidents Barack Obama and George W. Bush (2007-2010), is managing director of advisory firm RiverPeak Group, LLC. Follow him on Twitter: @CurtisSChin