SPEAKING FREELY Obama empty-handed in Asia
By David J Karl
Speaking Freely is an Asia Times Online feature that allows guest writers to have their say. Please click hereif you are interested in contributing.
Last autumn, US President Barack Obama's signature foreign policy initiative, the so-called "Asia pivot", suffered a big setback when the budget mess in Washington forced him to cancel a long-scheduled trip to Asia that was supposed to reassure US allies and partners about the administration's commitment to the region.
I argued back then that while Obama would always be able to re-book, the key question was whether he would have anything
The strategic shift to Asia that Washington launched with much hoopla two years ago is premised on two key efforts: the build-up of military forces that is plainly directed against China, and the ambitious set of trade and investment negotiations known as the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), which would contest Beijing's economic hegemony in East Asia. Both initiatives are in deep trouble.
Susan Rice, Obama's national security advisor, contends that the pivot remains "a cornerstone of the Obama administration's foreign policy". But many question whether the administration has the budgetary resources to back up its rhetoric.
Last month, the Pentagon's budget gurus pledged in congressional testimony that they would find a way to sustain the military effort despite the current era of fiscal austerity. Yet at the same time, the Pentagon's acquisitions chief acknowledged before a defense industry conference that "Right now, the pivot is being looked at again, because candidly it can't happen [due to budget pressures]." She quickly retracted her remarks, presumably due to her superiors' pressure, but the message was telling enough.
All the more so, since Admiral Samuel Locklear, the head of the US Pacific Command, told members of congress the next day that the resources at present available to him are insufficient to meet operational requirements. Adding to the effect of these messages was Beijing's announcement that day that it was increasing military spending by 12%. As the New York Times noted, this was yet "another sign of the country's goal of becoming a dominant military presence in the Pacific, with a navy able to project power across the region".
Two weeks later, Admiral Locklear admitted to the Senate Armed Services Committee (see here and here) that US forces in Asia lack the capacity to conduct major amphibious operations in the event of conflict, in part because these resources are being diverted to contingencies in the Middle East and Europe. At the same hearing, the commander of US forces in Korea acknowledged that he lacked the forces to quickly counter a sudden, large-scale attack by North Korea.
In a separate hearing, Admiral Jonathan Greenert, the US chief of naval operations, said he worries about being able to keep up with China's military growth. "I'm very concerned" about "our ability to project power in an area against an advanced adversary with those advanced capabilities," he said. "We're slipping behind." Indeed, the US navy is arguably at its smallest since 1917, with only a third of its entire fleet at sea at any one time, including just three of its 11 aircraft carriers. 
Last autumn, the US army reported that only two of its 42 brigades were combat-ready and that was before the administration announced plans to scale back the army to pre-World War II levels.  A study commission headed by two former US senators warns that the full brunt of budget sequestration on US military capabilities has yet to take effect, and that the combination of sequester cuts and unaddressed cost increases will erode force readiness, stall modernization, and reduce force levels by at least 50% by 2021.
All of these trends have increasingly caused US allies and partners in Asia to doubt America's staying power. So, too, does the growing perception that the Obama administration lacks resolve in dealing with hostile powers. Officials in the region point to Obama's vacillation over Syria last autumn, followed in close order by Washington's tacit acquiescence to Beijing's unilateral declaration establishing an expansive air defense identification zone in the East China Sea.
Another mordant example is last month's yielding to Russia's annexation of the Crimea peninsula despite the responsibilities the United States assumed for Ukraine's security in the December 1994 Budapest Memorandum, which the Obama administration explicitly reaffirmed in a December 2009 joint statement with Moscow.
The Crimean example has stirred great anxiety in Tokyo. The New York Times quotes a senior US military official as saying that Japanese officials "keep asking, 'Are you going to do the same thing to us when something happens?'" It also quotes a former advisor to Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe as saying "The Crimea is a game-changer. This is not fire on a distant shore for us. What is happening is another attempt by a rising power to change the status quo."
Similarly, Philippine President Benigno Aquino compares Beijing's bullying of the Philippines in the South China Sea to Hitler's demands on Czechoslovakia over the Sudetenland. 
Likewise in doubt is US commitment to the TTP, which would enable Washington to construct a truly muscular US-centric trade bloc in East Asia that brings together nearly 40% of the global economy. The Obama administration has already missed several self-imposed deadlines for concluding the negotiations, and it has not even bothered to press vigorously for so-called "trade promotion authority", a traditional indicator of serious intent because it puts trade deals on a quick path to congressional approval. Indeed, the lack of this authority is the largest obstacle to wrapping up the negotiations, since Japan is reportedly reluctant to make the necessary endgame concessions for fear that the US Congress would come back and demand more.
A Republican effort to give the president this authority in September 2011 was opposed by the White House and blocked by senate Democrats. Obama finally got around to requesting it in his State of the Union address in late January, only to be immediately shot down by Democratic leaders in the senate and the House. Two weeks later, the administration waved the white flag when Vice President Joe Biden told House Democratic leaders that the White House understood the reasons for their opposition.
The administration initially billed Obama's visit to Tokyo as the moment when the TTP talks would fructify but it is now tamping down expectations. The same thing happened during the president's trip to Europe last month. Many expected that he would use the opportunity to breathe new life there into negotiations on a trade and investment pact with the European Union. Yet Obama mentioned the trade deal in public only when asked about it at a press conference, and the Financial Times quotes one senior European diplomat as saying Obama's behind-the-scenes efforts were at best "passive aggressive".
On both the military and economic fronts, Obama risks leaving US allies in Asia with a similar sense of disappointment.
Speaking Freely is an Asia Times Online feature that allows guest writers to have their say.Please click hereif you are interested in contributing. Articles submitted for this section allow our readers to express their opinions and do not necessarily meet the same editorial standards of Asia Times Online's regular contributors.
David J Karl is president of the Asia Strategy Initiative, an analysis and advisory firm, and co-founder of Geoskope, a cross-market intelligence company. He can be reached via Twitter @DavidJKarl.