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Obama's legacy: Leaving Northeast Asia on a high point

Historians will see Obama’s mature presidency as a high point for US relations with the region.

Barack Obama and Xi Jinping at the G20 Summit, Hangzhou, China, in September 2016 (Photo by Lintao Zhang/Getty Images)
Barack Obama and Xi Jinping at the G20 Summit, Hangzhou, China, in September 2016 (Photo by Lintao Zhang/Getty Images)
Published 17 Jan 2017   Follow @Robert_E_Kelly

As US President Barack Obama leaves office, he bequeaths his successor a solid framework in northeast Asia, and decent relationships with its players, barring, of course, the extreme outlier of North Korea. The following is a general overview of his measured success:

Regional context: The Pivot

The broad framework of the Obama administration in East Asia has been the 'rebalance' or 'pivot', whereby the United States would increase focus on Asia given the region's expanding weight in the global economy, particularly because of the rise of China and India. Those two, plus Japan, Indonesia, South Korea, and Taiwan, represent some of world’s largest countries and economies. This clustered dynamism – what Thomas Barnett calls the 'new core' of the world economy - suggests that the US pay greater attention. Many also suspect the pivot was a credible excuse for the US to disengage somewhat from the Middle East. Obama clearly wanted to retrench from that area, or at least wind down US wars there. Declaiming a need to focus on the far weightier region of East Asia provided good cover for that.

The administration’s follow-through suggests more than such cynicism however. The pivot’s core is the military rebalance of 60% of US navy and air force assets to the region by 2020. Hence, the Chinese frequently describe the pivot as containment. But Obama has tried to emphasise diplomatic and economic components as well. I am sceptical these efforts will succeed. I do not believe Americans care enough about Asia for a major reorientation of US foreign policy away from Europe and the Middle East. But the Obama administration has wrapped the military rebalance in a larger effort in order to suggest it is more than just balancing China.

Diplomatically, the Obama administration tried much harder than the previous two administrations to participate in regional relations. The President - or major figures in his administrations - regularly attended regional meetings and organisations, and otherwise showed the flag. Obama reconfirmed the flagging alliances with Japan and Korea and paid more attention to southeast Asia than probably any other administration. The US signed ASEAN’s Treaty of Amity and Cooperation in 2009. Multilateralism and dense networking replaced the 'assertive unilateralism' of the previous George Bush (and likely of the coming Donald Trump) administration.

Economically, Obama promoted the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade deal to deepen US commitment to regional multilateral frameworks and positioning the US as a 'Pacific power'. The TPP would also counter-balance the economic appeal of China, which Beijing uses as coercive leverage against small regional exporters like the Philippines and South Korea. The TPP is more liberal than the Chinese counter-offer – the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership – and would cement a US counter-structure to emerging Chinese regional leadership. It is already a great disappointment that Trump will abandon TPP, as that will only deepen Beijing’s perception that the pivot is just containment.


The Obama administration maintained a sceptical, status quo posture toward China, which, given its enormous power in the system now, is probably about as much as one might expect from an American administration. The US cannot direct internal events in China - it cannot drive democratisation, economic liberalisation, or respect for human rights – and ceased to badger Beijing on such topics. It respected the good-enough status quo on Taiwan and pushed Beijing mildly and responsibly on North Korean behaviour. It mostly avoided the temptation of provoking trade conflicts with Beijing over currency manipulation or widespread crony mercantilism, instead cleaving to the WTO where possible to push these issues. Obama even pulled China into a climate change deal, a major concession from the world’s worst polluter. Nonetheless, he made sure that the American military lead over China remains substantial.

If this seems blasé or uninspired, one need only look at Donald Trump’s recklessness to see how wise managing China’s rise is, rather than challenging it. Trump has already flirted with a trade war and some kind of greater recognition of Taiwan – neither of which are necessary, both of which are provocative. Taiwan operates well-enough under the polite fiction of the 'One China' policy, while a trade war would balloon US consumer prices, badly hurting Trump’s downscale ‘Walmart voters.’ The US should indeed tangle with China if necessary to defend Taiwan, but there is no reason for the US to make this into an issue when it is not one. Pointlessly provoking China on such issues will also cost the US any cooperation on other issues, most obviously North Korea.


The US relationship with Japan improved significantly under Obama. In Shinzo Abe, Obama seems to have found another mature democratic leader with a wider vision of the region. Under Obama, the depth and reach of the alliance was confirmed; there will be no serious democratic response to China’s rise without a tight, active US-Japan alliance, a point both seem to recognize. This was symbolically illustrated in Obama’s visit to Hiroshima and Abe’s to Pearl Harbor. More practically, Obama supported the reinterpretation of the Japanese constitution to permit greater regional Japanese military engagement. Obama also helped Japan smooth over relations with South Korea, where a long-running debate over how to interpret Japanese colonialism has roiled bilateral relations.

Again, the contrast with Trump is striking. On the campaign, Trump spoke of Japan as the economic competitor from the 1970s, while his first instinct toward Japan as president-elect was to cash out.

South Korea

As with Japan, the Obama administration took pains to improve relations with Seoul. George Bush had been wildly unpopular in South Korea. Obama’s low-key approach went over well. The alliance was firmed up. The South Korean left’s anti-Americanism lost much of its force with the new president. South Korea’s two presidents during Obama’s term even spoke before Congress. Most critically, the US defence guarantee against North Korea held firm. The US did push South Korea toward more hawkish positions on North Korea – such as the closure of the Kaesong Industrial Zone and the installation of US missile defence. But this was done pragmatically, after the public debate in Korea had mostly come around. There were no grand, polarising declarations – like the ‘Axis of Evil’ – which make Koreans so uncomfortable with the alliance’s inherent asymmetry. Economically, Obama supported a free-trade agreement between the two states and diplomatically he provided political cover for improving relations with Japan (although that is once again under strain).

North Korea

Despite connecting with and improving relations between other authoritarian regimes (Cuba, Iran, Myanmar), Obama was unable deliver North Korea. For close to his entire presidency he maintained a policy of 'strategic patience'. This has been widely criticised but unfairly so to my mind. Obama pursued tough sanctions in response to North Korean nuclear testing and tied American responses to North Korean behaviour. Missile defence, for example, only became a major issue after Pyongyang made clear that it would pursue nuclear missile capability regardless of outside opinion. Obama also reached out to China for help, only to be rebuffed there too. If China and North Korea will give Obama nothing, no matter the flexibility he offers, I see little reason to criticise him or strategic patience. Other alternatives come with major downsides – kinetic action risks war, targeting Chinese banks hiding Northern funds risks a major showdown with China, and so on. North Korea has been a nut impossible to crack for every American president. I see no reason to judge Obama too harshly on that score.

All in all, Obama’s legacy in Northeast Asia is a good one – a B+ if we had to give a grade. He pulled the US toward the world’s most vibrant region. He firmed up alliances and relationships on the skids after Bush’s divisive presidency. He held a reasonable line with challengers like China and North Korea, responding when necessary but not taking unnecessary chances, as Trump already seems to be doing. He pushed prosperity-enhancing trade deals, which Asia’s mercantilist elites rarely propose themselves. This was a business-like foreign policy for a business-like presidency. Hardly inspirational, but given Bush’s divisive ideological posturing and Trump’s reckless theatricality, I bet historians will see Obama’s mature presidency as a high point for US relations with the region.

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