The pivot and the red line: the Syrian Civil War and US credibility in the Asia-Pacific

By Andrew Kwon

Called a ‘War Speech’ by the Washington Post’s Max Fisher, Secretary of State John Kerry dispelled all doubt at his Monday evening press conference over the Obama administration’s consideration of military action against Syria’s Bashar Al-Assad regime. Almost a year to the day since President Obama made his ‘Red line’ comment regarding the use of chemical weapons in Syria, its most recent (and visible) use on the outskirts of the Syrian Capital of Damascus has forced the President and his administration into the awkward position of preparing for another Middle Eastern conflict at a time they’d promised to be thinking about the Asia-Pacific.

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Despite the words of key administration officials  and even its unveiling as the Administration’s foreign policy blueprint by President Obama before the Australian Parliament in 2011, doubt over the US ‘Rebalance to Asia’ formed unsurprisingly quickly. At the core of these doubts, even prior to current issues related to sequestration, stood the tall order of US disengagement from combat operations in Afghanistan and Iraq. Due in part to the considerable investment of the Administration’s early energy into reducing the visible presence of the US in the Middle East, it seemed inevitable to some that the region would reemerge as the primary focus of the Administration as unaddressed issues would build critical mass and become too large to ignore.

This view seemed to pick up steam as major architects and proponents (such as Hillary Clinton and Kurt Campbell) of the ‘Rebalance to Asia’ in the administration began to depart from their respective positions and became all but certain with the nomination and appointment of then-Senator John Kerry to Secretary of State. Perhaps to best summarise the view of these observers is Randy Schriver, a Former Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs for the G.W. Bush Administration who at a recent event hosted by the Atlantic Council in Washington, noted his inability to call to mind an official as the Obama Administration’s current ‘Asia point man.’

To a certain extent, most states in the Asia-Pacific seemed unfazed by the re-shifting in focus. Beyond a change in key personnel as well as doubts and confusion related to the strategic coherency of the ‘Rebalance to Asia’, the general difficulty of the Obama Administration (such as sequestration) from the start of its second term made efforts to preserve political capital understandable. However, what’s potentially unacceptable is the possibility that the US will be unable to act both decisively and clearly during its upcoming recommitment to the Middle East despite having again freed up its focus in the Asia-Pacific to do so.

As such, the question related to Syria for many observers in and around major US partners and allies throughout the Asia-Pacific is not related to the actual use of chemical weapons, rather the potential US response to their use. Faced with the prospect of being damned by ‘owning’ the conflict if the response is too ‘heavy handed’ or faced with being damned through questions over its ‘reliability’ if the response is too ‘light’, states in the Asia-Pacific are no doubt watching closely as to how the Obama administration will act—no doubt, a source of unwanted additional pressure.

Overall, whatever the response, strategic thinking in the Asia-Pacific will undoubtedly be affected as factors (like the credibility of US security assurances) are reassessed. A particularly depressing thought lies in the potential repercussions of the ‘what if’ scenario where the Obama administration bungles both management and messaging of the crisis. Side effects could range from a frustrated legislative agenda due to reluctant participation of allies and partners in ongoing efforts such as Trans-Pacific Partnership negotiations and even a more confident and aggressive North Korea. The question really boils down to a simple metaphor; would you dance again with a partner who couldn’t get his left and right foot right?

Andrew Kwon is a Joseph S. Nye Jr. Research Intern at the Center for a New American Security in Washington DC, USA. This post originally appeared on the ASPI Strategist and can be found here. The views expressed are his own.

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Leadership Change, Alliance Support and Domestic Priorities: Australia’s election and the US in the Asia-Pacific

Andrew Kwon

This week, Australia will be going to the polls to decide on whether it should keep the incumbent Center-Left Labor Party or the Opposition Centre-right Liberal-National Coalition. A culmination of several years of domestic instability and drama, when considered in the context of the regional ‘big picture’, the Australian election is potentially another leadership change following on the heels of others that have occurred in Major US Allies in the Asia-Pacific. At a time when the Obama Administration is increasingly looking to its partner to insure the success of some of its key legislation (such as the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement) as well as unity in the face of destabilizing threats (such as North Korea), the importance of understanding the potential effects of the Australian election and its representation of a larger trends in the region cannot be underscored.

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Recently having undertook my civic duties as an Australian Citizen and voted (living abroad, I pre-polled), the lead up to the election and the events which triggered it had led me to see parallels with Australian counterparts throughout the Asia-Pacific. Though it is true that China and North Korea recently went through change, the degree of uncertainty that resulted from these leadership transitions was due in no small part to similar changes occurring in The Republic of Korea (hereafter referred to as South Korea) and Japan.

Much like Australia, South Korea and Japan are key US allies that recently experienced leadership changes amidst a highly divisive and domesticized political climate fed by economic tumult or uncertainty. South Korea recently saw the election of Park Geun-hye to the presidency. Though the candidate who seemed most likely to succeed, the road to the presidency was a tumultuous one. The president’s familial ties to one of the most divisive figures in South Korean political history (her father was the authoritarian figure Park Chung-hee), substantial criticism over and undistinguishable policy alternatives between candidates on key issues as well as the unpopular and controversial legacy of her immediate party and presidential predecessor were all major factors. Japan in turn saw the return of the Centre-Right Liberal Democratic Party and a contentious former premier, Shinzo Abe. Winning in a landslide election following mass public outcry against the Centre-Left Democratic Party of Japan, now-Prime Minister Abe rode to power on not only a platform to satisfy the electoral demand for economic recovery but by also appealing to its resurging nationalism. Australia has similarly dealt with considerable turbulence. The last several years have been a roller-coaster in Australian politics, acts ranging from internal party coups (called leadership spills in Australia), partisan mudslinging, scandals as well as doubts over the sustainability of Australia’s economic growth has created a poisonous political environment, pushing party and leadership disapproval to almost parity.

However, in comparison to the domestic negativity, political support for the US is contrastingly high. The first high profile summit abroad for Prime Minister Abe and President Park was in the US. Also, besides the multiple occasions Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd has visited, even the Opposition Leader Tony Abbott has visited the US and declared the importance of the US-Australia alliance on that occasion. In addition, public support is also extremely favorable in the aforementioned countries of South Korea, Japan and Australia. Overall, all of this raises questions as to what happens when domestic concerns collides with continued support of the US alliance, which of the two forces will prevail?

Though it is difficult to say what either a Labor or Coalition government will do, a divisive pre-election period which includes critical elements like a lackluster economic projections have led Australian counterparts to create some difficult self-imposed obstacles. Much like Japan and South Korea before it, the winning party in the Australian election will remain highly supportive of the Alliance but will likely be tied down by a heavy domestic agenda and be posed to prioritize the economy and consolidate amidst the still fresh fissures of a divisive period. This will likely lead to foreign engagement which has maximum potential domestic gain but minimal effort required, this is particularly so for large and time-consuming activities like those led by the US. Hence, the Obama Administration should watch closely the events in Australia and take overtures of support with a grain of salt. When all is said and done, the calculus is shifting and so are the priorities.

Andrew Kwon is a Joseph S. Nye Jr. Research Intern at the Center for a New American Security in Washington DC, USA. The views expressed are his own.