Following the G20 summit meeting in China on Sept. 4 and 5, North Korea’s missile tests have sparked discussion about what challenges the next U.S. president will face in Asia as well as reflection on President Obama’s foreign policy.
With all the uncertainty in the region, North Asia has been dubbed one of the most dangerous corners of the world. Given the importance of foreign policy in the current presidential election, it’s important for University of Dallas students, many of us first-time voters, to understand what the situation is before we judge a candidate’s foreign policy platform.
Before the Obama administration, the U.S. had significant involvement with numerous countries in Asia. The Clinton and Bush administrations deployed naval and air weapons systems to Guam and Japan and strengthened bilateral defense cooperation with Japan and the Philippines, among other initiatives. Additionally, spending for the U.S. Pacific Command remained high during campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan. Understandably, there was significantly more focus on the Middle East than Asia under the Bush administration and this is what led to Obama’s pivot to Asia.
The pivot to Asia describes the shift in foreign policy focus toward the United States’ partners in Asia — namely China, South Korea, Japan and the Philippines — from its ceaseless focus on the Middle East and Europe. The Obama administration executed this shift because they believed that major issues of the 21st century will be decided in Asia.
Overall, the pivot had mixed reactions as each country in Asia had its own views on U.S. involvement in the region.
China, for example, has been relatively skeptical because they believe there is an underlying “China Containment Policy” in the shift. They believe that in order to have hegemony in Asia and prevent the rise of China, the U.S. needs to keep China weak and divided and create strong ties with surrounding countries, as would occur with the new focus on Asia.
There have been some bumps in the road with Obama’s policy: for example, the difficulties in the South China Sea.
So, what is going on in Asia right now? There are several countries to whom we should pay attention, but the one that’s been making the most news recently is North Korea.
North Korea claimed it tested a nuclear warhead, as Obama wrapped up his last visit to Asia as President on Sept. 9. Experts have said that the subsequent earthquake indicates that the blast was too small to be a nuclear device, but there is no doubt that North Korea does have nuclear capabilities. Earlier in the week, North Korea also launched three ballistic missiles into the sea.
In response to increased threats from North Korea, South Korea announced earlier this summer that it would be deploying a Terminal High-Altitude Area Defense (THAAD), essentially a missile defense system, from the U.S. This decision caused tension between South Korea and China, as China would like to drive a wedge between South Korea and the U.S.
However, while China has repeatedly protested South Korea implementing THAAD, it has issued a statement protesting North Korea’s tests, reminding them to honor their commitment to denuclearization, comply with relevant United Nations Security Council resolutions and stop taking any action to worsen the situation. While China does not want South Korea to deploy THAAD, it does not like the idea of North Korea launching nuclear missiles either.
Following the test on Sept. 9, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe reached out to President Obama to discuss a response. Obama will make a final appearance at the U.N. where North Korea’s actions will most certainly be discussed, but there is also no contesting the fact that his foreign policy is winding down.
With the election in November, Obama has only a few months left as president and soon major decisions regarding North Korea and other countries in Asia will be picked up by his successor.
In his conversation with Obama, Abe called for the international community to make Pyongyang understand the costs of taking such provocative action. Just how that might be carried out will depend largely on how the American people vote on Nov. 8.