State of the Union addresses are generally expressions of hope. And yes, it would be nice if Asia was all economic opportunity and competition. Indeed, the economic opportunities in Asia for the U.S. are great. But a shadow of doubt is growing over the region. The threat that doubt poses to America, its allies and the region’s prosperity was nowhere to be found in the President’s speech tonight.
Asia’s inexorably rising great power, China, and an ally America is treaty-bound to defend, Japan, are nearer to conflict today than they have been at any time since World War II. In the South China Sea, another American ally, the Philippines is at odds with outlandish and aggressive Chinese claims of maritime territory. And a mad man with nuclear weapons remains in control of half the Korean Peninsula.
The once vaunted “Asia pivot” is doing nothing to effectively address these threats. The Chinese and their allies in North Korea can count. They know what’s happening with American defense budgets. They know 2-4 new Littoral Combat ships in Singapore and 250 Marines at a time in faraway Darwin, Australia, don’t add up to much of a new commitment.
The President did nothing tonight to disabuse them of their conclusions. He made a weak attempt at invoking the pivot. It came at the end of his list of priorities and he spent far less time on it than he did the Middle East. This will not be lost on our allies and friends in Asia. Anyone watching this speech from Tokyo or Manila or Canberra or Seoul has to believe the many voices in their midst saying, “Asia was Clinton’s thing. Not Obama’s. Secretary Kerry wants to make his mark elsewhere.” In the long run, this lack of consistency, clarity and resolve will leave the U.S. no good choices.