President Obama’s Asia Pivot Approach | Shahid Javed Burki

The continent towards which President Barack Obama hoped to pivot the US was very different at the beginning of his first term compared to the one he faces as he enters the eighth and final year of his presidency. Led by the economically booming China, the Asian continent seemed well on its way to living up to the promise that the 21st century will be Asia’s. Obama bought this argument and prediction made by several analysts, including the Singaporean Kishore Mahbubani, who went beyond what was being predicted for Asia. Not only will the continent become the dominant economic force in the world, he argued, but as Asia rises, America will decline. Under Obama’s two immediate predecessors, the US had concerned itself with Europe and the Middle East.

Bill Clinton’s most daring foreign policy initiative was to bomb Slobodan Milosevic’s Serbia into submission. He saw Milosevic’s genocidal approach, who had carried out the mass murder of his country’s Muslim population, as a humanitarian crisis as well as a threat to Europe. The Clinton action led to the signing of the Dayton Accord, which resulted in the break-up of the multi-ethnic and multi-religious collapsing state of Yugoslavia, and the independent states of Serbia, Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina emerged. Two of these states went on to join the European Union. Clinton had achieved his foreign policy objective.

Clinton was succeeded by George W Bush whose foreign policy focus was the Middle East. A few months into his first term as president, the 9/11 attacks happened. Bush responded by attacking Afghanistan. The Taliban regime in that country had hosted the radical group that had programmed the attacks. After some heavy bombing, the Northern Alliance established a US-supported regime. Having succeeded in bringing about regime change in Afghanistan, Bush went on to invade Iraq in 2003. Soon after the campaign began, the Saddam Hussein regime fell. In part using guile and in part by terrifying the citizenry, Saddam Hussein had succeeded in holding together Iraq as one country that was not quite a nation. Its population was made up of three large and disparate communities — the majority Shiite, the minority Sunni and the Kurds. The third group was of non-Arab in ethnicity. It was spread over four countries — Iraq, Syria, Iran and Turkey. It had been demanding an autonomous state of its own, which none of the countries in which it had significant presence was prepared to grant. With Saddam Hussein gone, these three communities fell upon one another. One consequence of this three-way civil war was the rise of Islamic extremism. The origin of the Islamic State can therefore be traced back to the 2003 invasion of Iraq by the US.

Faced with all these complexities, Obama was correct in reorienting his country’s approach away from the Middle East and Europe and towards Asia. But Asia did not evolve in ways that were expected. Its economy suffered a severe setback and a number of inter-country disputes began to take their toll. Although there is a small probability of this happening, Asia has the potential of coming apart because of several unresolved differences among its many states. Of the world’s eight nuclear states, four are in Asia. If North Korea is counted in the group as it should, the number increases to nine and of those in Asia, to five. Iran has the potential of becoming one if the provisions in the Vienna agreement of July 2015 are not fully met. The continent has the fastest growing nuclear arsenal with Pakistan adding more to its nuclear holding than any other country. Even of greater significance is the fact that four of the nine nuclear states share borders. All four have unresolved border conflicts. The world was alerted to the dangers posed by a heavily nuclearised Asia when, on January 5, Pyongyang announced that it had conducted a nuclear test. It claimed that it had exploded a hydrogen bomb. Three of the four tests the country had carried out to date were during the Obama presidency. Managing the political fallout from the test was not something Obama had contemplated when he announced the “pivot to Asia” policy. He had hoped to take advantage of Asia’s growing economic strength. He was not thinking of involving himself in making the continent a safe place.

Published in The Express Tribune, January 11th, 2016.


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