The Obama Administration and US Policy in Asia

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President Barack Obama came to power facing daunting domestic and foreign crises. The United States led world economies into steep decline in 2008 and has continued falling in 2009. Active efforts by the US and other governments to deal with the causes and effects of the global financial crisis have showed little signs of substantially reversing economic fortunes. A prolonged recession--more serious than any experienced since the depression of the 1930s--seems likely. (1)

Economic calamity overshadowed what had been expected to be the new US government's most salient preoccupation--the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and the violence and instability in the broader Middle East-Southwest Asian region. In 2009, continued progress in stabilizing security in Iraq and transitioning responsibilities to the Iraqi government opened the way to anticipated withdrawals of US combat forces from the country within the next two years. However, the deteriorating security situation in Afghanistan meant that US combat forces would be significantly increased in order to counter the resurgence of Taliban attacks and their expanding administrative control that has threatened to reverse gains following the overthrow of the oppressive Taliban regime by US-led forces in 2001. (2)

Pakistan's weakness compounded US difficulties in shoring up security in Afghanistan. Pakistan's ungoverned border region with Afghanistan harboured al Qaeda and Taliban militants working to overthrow the US-backed administration in Kabul. Pakistani terrorists also threatened India: one such group was implicated in the dramatic November 2008 terrorist attacks in Mumbai. Without stronger Pakistani government efforts to suppress such groups and stop blatant attacks on India, New Delhi's retaliation with military and other actions would raise the spectre of a major confrontation between the two nuclear armed rivals. Meanwhile, developments in the Middle East stalled prospects for advancing peace amid deep regional and global concerns over Iran's apparently active pursuit of nuclear weapons. (3)

Against this background, US relations with the rest of the Asia-Pacific region seemed likely to be of generally secondary importance for US policy-makers. The global economic crisis put a premium on close US collaboration with major international economies, notably Asian economies like China and Japan, in promoting domestic stimulus plans, supporting international interventions to rescue failing economies and avoiding egregiously self-serving economic and trade practices that could prompt protectionist measures seen to encumber any early revival of world economic growth.

Apart from the deeply troubled Middle East-Southwest Asian region, the other major area of US security concern in Asia is North Korea. Pyongyang climbed to the top of the Obama government's policy agenda through a string of provocative actions in 2009 culminating in North Korea's withdrawal from the Six Party Talks and its second nuclear weapons test in May. North Korea's first nuclear weapons test of 2006 represented a failure of the Bush administration's hard line approach in dealing with North Korea's nuclear weapons programme. In response, that US administration reversed policy, adopting a much more flexible approach, including frequent bilateral talks with North Korean negotiators, within the broad framework of the Six-Party Talks seeking the denuclearization of the Korean peninsula. Important agreements were reached but North Korea did not fulfill obligations to disable and dismantle plutonium-based nuclear facilities.

The Obama government had seemed poised to use the Six Party Talks and bilateral discussion with North Korea in seeking progress in getting Pyongyang to fulfill its obligations. The escalating North Korean provocations in 2009 and the Pyongyang regime's strident defiance of UN Security Council resolutions and international condemnation compelled a US policy review. …