America’s “Obama Style” All-In Asian Policy

At the East Asia Summit (EAS) in Bali, Indonesia, U.S. President Obama said, “in the Asia-Pacific in the 21st century, the United States of America is all in.” Obama, who was born in Hawaii, spent his youth in Jakarta with his mother, who remarried an Indonesian student. A few years ago, I visited the house where Obama had lived, where the locals recalled “a lively boy playing in the streets.” Obama’s recent announcement may seem unexpected, but this all-in policy in the Asia-Pacific region makes sense for Obama, who grew up in Hawaii and Indonesia.

Since Obama became president, most of his work in foreign policy has been to finish the job former President Bush led after the 9/11 terrorist attacks. The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, not to mention the “war on terror,” were Bush policies. The capture and killing of al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden was Obama’s final touch on the work started by Bush.

Bush left a deep imprint on policies related to the war on terror; and no matter how hard he tried, Obama found it difficult to erase the impression of the “Bush legacy.” By the end of the year, the withdrawal of American forces from Iraq will be complete. American forces in Afghanistan will withdraw by 2014. The unwanted foreign policy legacy inherited from the former president will then virtually come to an end. Obama can breathe a sigh of relief for his reelection; now he has the chance to pursue an “Obama foreign policy” as part of his reelection strategy.

Obama’s targets are Asia and China. America’s destiny will be either cooperation or confrontation with China. China and Asia will be the most influential regions in America’s future, and it was inevitable that these regions would become the centerpiece of Obama’s foreign policy. U.S. experts see Obama’s decision as a turning point for America’s foreign policy.

However, the U.S. returning to Asia is not the U.S. of the past. In the past, the U.S.’ economic and security role was to provide public goods to Asian countries, including South Korea. It opened up its huge market for economic reasons and built a fence to support its allies for security reasons. Now, China has mostly replaced the U.S. in the Asia-Pacific region from an economic standpoint. Even just a few years ago, the U.S. was South Korea’s largest trading partner, but China has taken that role from the U.S.

The U.S. is still the world’s largest economy, but U.S. GDP as a percentage of total world GDP fell from 23 percent in 1999 to 20 percent in 2009. On the other hand, China’s GDP as a proportion of the world total increased from 7 percent to 13 percent. The U.S. is currently being crushed by government debt that is spiraling out of control, and its credit rating has been downgraded by the international credit rating agency Standard & Poor’s. Furthermore, Congress can’t solve any problems. International political scientists have observed that the U.S. is suffering from all the symptoms consistent with those experienced by past empires that disappeared into history.

At a glance, Obama’s all-in Asian policy seems harmless for South Korea. However, Asian countries are perplexed; they are all well aware that they will not be able to avoid becoming involved in a U.S.-China showdown. South Korea, in particular, will likely fall into the most complicated situation. It will face difficult choices, big and small: between the U.S., which has been a close ally for decades, and China, which is geographically close and it is intricately tied to economically. South Korea’s foreign policy will face a whole new level of challenges ahead.

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