Years from now, when the history of Barack Obama’s much-maligned Asia “pivot” is written, he may owe a debt of gratitude to an unlikely ally: Xi Jinping.
The Chinese president is, of course, vehemently opposed to the U.S. rebalancing its focus toward the East. Hardliners in Xi’s Communist Party believe the U.S. president should stick to his own neighborhood and leave the world’s most dynamic economic region to China’s suzerainty. But Xi’s ham-handed efforts to assert himself in Asia are having exactly the opposite effect.
Aggressive Chinese maritime claims are driving Vietnam into Washington’s arms and leading Filipinos to welcome back the U.S. troops they once relished sending home. An apparent assault on Hong Kong’s cherished freedoms is alienating one population that has reunified with the mainland and another — Taiwan’s — that increasingly seems to dread the prospect.
Even in Seoul last week, as Xi tried to cozy up to South Korean President Park Geun-hye by highlighting their shared wariness of Japan’s rightward turn, his efforts appear to have come up short. As much as Park may loathe Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, she leads a vibrant democracy that remains home to tens of thousands of U.S. troops. South Korea is not about to align itself with communist China.
Xi’s overbearing ways are giving Obama a second wind in Asia. Question is, will the U.S. president take advantage of it?
Let’s face it, Obama’s “pivot” has been reduced to a punchline. There’s been too much talk about America’s focus on Asia and too little to show for it. The U.S. has beefed up its troop presence in northern Australia and the Philippines and pledged to come to Japan’s defense in case of conflict with China. But what’s still lacking is a clear and substantive plan for U.S. leadership in a region that’s changing at a breakneck pace.
This week affords a chance to turn the tide as U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry visits China and India and Treasury Secretary Jacob Lew hits Beijing to take the pulse of China’s restructuring efforts. While the engagement is welcome, Kerry and Lew are too busy putting out today’s fires to plan for tomorrow.
What Asian nations really want to see from the U.S. are signs of commitment to Asia’s long-term growth and development. That means dedicating more resources and creating new senior Asia posts in Washington, attracting experts in Asian history, economics, politics — perhaps even naming an Asia policy czar. If Obama is going to make another Asia speech, it should be big and detailed on policy. The U.S. president also needs to make more trips to Asia than he cancels.
Most importantly, Obama needs to find a way to win fast-track authority to sign trade deals like the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which would bind the U.S. firmly to the world’s fastest-growing economies. That would send a powerful signal to Asian nations that fear dependence on China yet are reluctant to get embroiled in a great-power rivalry.
History will look poorly on Obama’s presidency if he doesn’t work harder to win Asia. Consider these names: David Ricardo. Adam Smith. Karl Marx. Joseph Schumpeter. John Maynard Keynes. Milton Friedman. What do these men have in common? Three things: They were all famous economists; they’re all dead; and I feel bad for them. Not because they’re dead, but because these great thinkers missed the most significant economic and political story history has ever known: the entry of more than 3 billion Asians — more than half the world’s population — into the global marketplace.
Each of those 3-plus billion people wants to go to school, use a smartphone, find a good job, own a motorbike (maybe even a car), travel on an airplane and vote. It isn’t just Asia’s scale and ambition that’s rendering our economist forefathers obsolete, but speed.
Today, China and India alone are changing the way we invest, eat, breathe and think about the world. Tomorrow, all geopolitical, economic, environmental and military calculations will have to take Asia into consideration. Amid such epochal change, America can’t afford to sit on the sidelines. China’s Xi has given Obama another chance to get in the game. He had better seize it.
William Pesek is a Tokyo-based Bloomberg View columnist.
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