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Can Obama Pursue Asia Pivot With Republican Congress?


U.S. President Barack Obama is in Asia this week for talks with world leaders in China, Myanmar, and Australia. VOA State Department Correspondent Scott Stearns reports on how a Republican-controlled Congress might affect the president’s so-called "Asia Pivot."

The president’s trip to Asia is his first trip since Republicans won control of Congress -- a political setback that the Atlantic Council’s Robert Manning said could undermine Obama’s influence in Asia over his last two years.

"We have seen China in the East and South China Seas become much more assertive over the last couple of years, and if they see Obama as a lame duck, they may decide that they can ignore U.S. protests to the contrary,” said Manning.

China this year has taken a more aggressive approach to the South China Sea, where Vietnam says China’s coast guard rammed one of its patrols. U.S. efforts at a code of conduct for these disputed waters have failed to attract Chinese support, according to American Enterprise Institute analyst Michael Auslin.

"It hasn't worked, it's never going to work, and I think that our diplomatic energies should probably be spent more on working with our allies than trying to maintain the fiction that we and China have a working relationship," said Auslin.

Aiming for cooperation

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said Washington is not giving up on a code of conduct or on improving cooperation with Beijing.

"The U.S.-China relationship is the most consequential in the world today, period, and it will do much to determine the shape of the 21st century. That means that we have to get it right," said Kerry.

Obama came to office pushing what he called an "Asia Pivot" of military, commercial, and diplomatic resources to the region. But that promise was never delivered on, said Cato Institute analyst Justin Logan, who continued that is unlikely to improve now that the president is facing opposition majorities in Congress.

“I suspect that he would like to have a more strategic focus and would like to follow through on the so-called "Pivot." But even he is subject to the pressure of the media, the news cycle, legislative pressures,” said Logan.

Middle East focus

At a time when Beijing is expanding its influence in the Asia-Pacific, Logan said Washington is consumed with fighting terrorists in Iraq and Syria.

“And I think that is where the Pivot has really fallen apart because people are working 16-hour days trying to figure out who we want to win the Syrian civil war instead of thinking carefully about South and East China Sea issues,” said Logan.

If the president is to revive his Asia Pivot, Auslin said his administration must take a more muscular approach.

“If they don't want their legacy to be the high-minded goal of a Pivot that never went much beyond rhetoric and certainly didn't change the balance of power in a positive way that they wanted, plus wound up with much worse U.S.-China relations by 2017 when they leave office, then it's time to change your tactics,” said Auslin.

Auslin said Obama can show both Asian allies and Republicans in Congress the seriousness of his Pivot by backing United Nations mediation under international law in disputed waters -- rather than a non-binding code of conduct.

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