With two rows of sailors standing behind him, President Barack Obama strode alongside Manila Harbor last November to inspect an aging U.S. Coast Guard cutter that’s now the pride of the Philippine navy.
The vessel was once part of a 12-cutter Coast Guard fleet known for requiring never-ending maintenance to stay afloat. Now, it’s a tangible example of Obama’s attempt to reorient U.S. foreign policy toward Asia and confront Chinese expansion in the Pacific.
The gift of the 50-year-old Coast Guard cutter shows the difficulty of turning U.S. military and economic focus toward the part of the world Obama believes is most vital to America’s future. A sweeping trade deal with 11 Pacific-Rim nations, considered critical to the strategy, is in danger of rejection by the U.S. Congress. And China, the chief U.S. rival in the region, is aggressively pursuing territorial claims and increasing its belligerence toward U.S. friends and allies, including the Philippines, Japan and Vietnam.
“By any stretch, our policy’s failed because China has responded to our coercion with resistance,” said Robert Ross, a Boston College political science professor who specializes in China. “The situation in Asia is clearly worse than it was eight years ago.”
China’s saber-rattling toward its neighbors is in no small measure to blame, and Obama has won important political victories in Asia. They include a deal with the Philippines to base U.S. troops in the country for the first time in more than two decades and a rapprochement between Japan and South Korea, key U.S. allies still harboring animosities left over from the beginning of the last century.
The trade deal, called the Trans-Pacific Partnership, would cement an economic alliance between the U.S. and countries ringing China, including Vietnam and Japan, which Obama will visit beginning May 22.
Defense Secretary Ash Carter has said he would prefer the trade agreement over another carrier battle group in the Pacific. Yet the deal is in limbo because even Republican lawmakers who favor free trade don’t want to hand Obama a victory in an election year, while much of his own Democratic party is opposed to it, including presidential contenders Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders.
“TPP is the cornerstone of the architecture we’re trying to build in the Asia-Pacific,” said Ben Rhodes, deputy U.S. national security adviser, using an acronym for the deal. “It would certainly leave, in our judgment, that work unfinished to not have TPP done.”
Obama’s pivot to Asia, as it’s come to be known, became formal in November 2011 when he traveled to Hawaii, Australia and Indonesia to announce strengthened economic and military cooperation with U.S. allies in the region. The focus on China was explicit; Obama said that the world’s second-largest economy must “play by the rules” as it developed into a global power.
“We made an assessment early in the administration that the United States was underrepresented in and has under-prioritized engagement in the Asia-Pacific,” Rhodes said in an interview. “We in many ways were not even at the table, and that was creating an opening for China to set the terms for the future of the region.”
While strengthening relationships with the U.S.’s regional allies, one consequence of the pivot may be a more hostile China. Encounters between the U.S. and Chinese militaries in the South China Sea have increased, as the U.S. seeks to challenge China’s territorial claims in the area.
“Against the backdrop of the Asia pivot, the strategic rivalry between China and the U.S. has been getting fierce, and the strategic cooperation has gradually deteriorated,” said Shi Yinhong, director of the Center on American Studies at Renmin University in Beijing and a foreign policy adviser to the State Council. “From a longer perspective, the pivot is creating a Sino-U.S. relationship that’s uncertain, unstable and even dangerous.”
Obama’s foreign policy has seldom followed the script he wrote as a presidential candidate. Campaign promises to end U.S. involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan haven’t panned out; Syria and Libya are bigger messes than when Obama took office; and his nuclear agreement with Iran remains under fire.
That escalates the importance of securing policies such as the turn to Asia, the restoration of normal relations with Cuba and a program that has brought electricity to the homes of millions of poor Africans. Obama is seeking to lock in all of his foreign policy accomplishments — for example by establishing air service to Cuba and strengthening military ties with the Philippines — so that his successor can’t easily reverse them.
“The Republicans will make the argument: even things that are very hard to undo, we’ll roll that back,” said Julie Smith, director of the Center for a New American Security’s strategy and statecraft program. “There’s always this sense that everything’s temporary.”
Obama’s visit to Vietnam will strengthen the U.S. relationship with a country that was an enemy less than half a century ago. The trip includes stops in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City, formerly Saigon, where the U.S. once had to abandon its embassy ahead of advancing North Vietnamese soldiers.
“They’re not the traditional areas of focus for U.S. foreign policy,” Rhodes said, compared to longtime allies such as Japan and South Korea. “It’s unlikely that any future U.S. president — well, maybe Trump — would downgrade Japan and Korea relations.”
Billionaire Donald Trump’s emergence as the presumptive Republican presidential nominee is causing concern among U.S. allies across the globe, and Asian nations key to Obama’s strategy worry that his pivot could be followed in short order by another one, away from them.
Eugene Tan, an associate professor at the Singapore Management University and a former nominated member of parliament, said recent developments in U.S. politics including a rise in protectionist sentiment and the threat of an “America First” foreign policy under a Trump presidency threatens Obama’s strategy.
“America’s apparent lack of resolve to decisively assert the balance of power in the region, especially in the face of a rising China, and the hesitation to ratify the TPP all point to a perception that the U.S. is pivoting away from Asia when it can least afford to,” he said.
Launched in 1965
Back in the Philippines, where China is building artificial islands within 140 nautical miles of the nation’s coast, the navy proudly calls the BRP Gregorio del Pilar its fastest ship. Launched in 1965 and once known as U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Hamilton, the ship poses little threat to China’s increasingly advanced navy. The vessel boasts a Facebook page and is billed as a “multi-mission surface combatant ship” but was eagerly abandoned by the U.S. Coast Guard when it got money to replace the Hamilton and other aging cutters.
The ship was part of the deal for the U.S. to again base military forces in the Philippines. Obama announced in November that the U.S. will send the country two more retired vessels this year. One of them is another Coast Guard cutter. The other is a research ship best known for her star turn in the movie “King Kong.”