President Barack Obama sought to allay persistent doubts about U.S. intentions in the Asia-Pacific region with a pledge that it will remain the “fundamental focus” of his foreign policy.
In the keynote speech of his trip through the region, Obama today ticked through a series of commitments and agreements he’s made over the past week: accords with China on trade and emissions; a $3 billion pledge for a United Nations climate fund and greater coordination on economic and security matters.
“Day in, day out, steadily, deliberately, we will continue to deepen our engagement using every element of our power -— diplomacy, military, economic, development and the power of our values,” Obama said in a speech at the University of Queensland in Brisbane, Australia, the host city for the Group of 20 nations summit.
While promising the U.S. would continue to lead on global issues from climate change, to economic growth and containing outbreaks of disease such as Ebola, Obama said the nations of the Asia-Pacific region also must contribute more.
Since the start of his presidency, when he said the U.S. would reassert itself as a Pacific nation, Obama’s attempts to redirect his foreign policy focus have been repeatedly distracted by turmoil in the Middle East and confronting a resurgent Russia, most recently over Ukraine.
While Obama today acknowledged that global events had drawn U.S. attention elsewhere, he said they are no distraction from his long-term goals in the region. Instead, he said issues such as the fight against Islamic State and the Russian incursion into Ukraine have drawn the U.S. toward closer cooperation and coordination with Asia-Pacific nations.
With the number of areas requiring U.S. engagement around the world, Obama “simply can’t send a message about undivided attention to Asia at the moment,” said Rory Medcalf, director of the International Security Program at the Lowy Institute for International Policy in Sydney.
Obama’s remarks, though, “touched all the right notes” about the U.S. commitment to allies, he said.
Elvin Lim, an associate professor of political science at the National University of Singapore, said Obama is necessarily pursuing a strategy that is designed to be fluid and somewhat ambiguous.
“No country in this region wants to be forced to choose between Washington and Beijing.” Lim said. “For its part, the U.S. must engage the Pacific without appearing to be containing China.”
The economic centerpiece of what the administration calls a rebalancing is a proposed Trans-Pacific Partnership trade pact that would link the U.S. and 11 other nations. While a final agreement remains elusive almost a year after the initial deadline passed, the administration says it’s still a priority.
The policy shift also extends to the military, including rotating as many as 2,500 U.S. Marines to Darwin in northern Australia, and stationing a greater share of air and naval forces in the region. That repositioning is being made as China is asserting its economic and military influence over a wider area, creating friction with U.S. allies such as Japan and the Philippines.
Obama once again said the U.S. backed the peaceful rise of China, even as he warned that territorial disputes between the country and U.S. allies in the East China Sea and and South China Sea “threaten to spiral into confrontation.”
The U.S. “has invested our blood and treasure” to advance the vision of prosperity and stability in the region, he said. “So no one should ever question our resolve or our commitments to our allies.”
The president also emphasized action to deal with climate change and prevent global economic growth from stalling.
Obama used the address at the university to formally announce a $3 billion U.S. pledge to a United Nations climate-change fund that’s intended to help poor nations boost renewable energy and counter the effects of global warming.
That would make the U.S. the largest donor to the newly established fund, which is a linchpin of efforts to secure an accord within the UN to combat global warming.
“Along with other nations that have pledged support, we’ll help vulnerable communities with early-warning systems, stronger defenses against storm surges, and climate-resilient infrastructure,” Obama said.
Obama’s remarks on climate change were met with sustained applause in the university’s auditorium. His call to action puts him at odds with Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott, the G-20 host, who has in the past expressed skepticism about climate change and sought in the weeks before the summit to keep the focus firmly on economic issues.
Even though Obama’s climate agenda faces domestic roadblocks put up by the Republicans who’ll take control of both chambers in Congress next year, the issue provided Obama with the biggest prize of his trip.
For the first time, Chinese President Xi Jinping said his country would make large scale cuts to carbon emissions in advance of the 2015 UN climate summit in Paris.
The climate deal, a culmination of months of behind-the-scenes negotiations between the U.S. and China, will be used by Obama to press other countries in advance of the 2015 summit, most notably Australia and India -- two participants in climate talks that have been hard sells on the issue for U.S. negotiators.
“If China and the United States can agree on this, then the world can agree on this,” Obama said.
Whatever his difficulties at home, Obama was buoyed in Brisbane by the performance of the U.S. economy, which is far outpacing other advanced nations. The U.S. expanded at an annualized average rate of 3.5 percent in the third quarter compared with less than 1 percent for the 18 countries that use the euro.
G-20 members have submitted plans to achieve a target of lifting the group’s collective gross domestic product by an additional 2 percent or more above the current trajectory over five years. Stalling growth in Europe was the top risk identified by the International Monetary Fund when it cut its global economic forecasts last month.
For the G-20, the Brisbane summit offers an opportunity to regain the initiative amid doubts over the institution’s effectiveness. The organization emerged as the premier global forum in 2009 as world leaders struggled to combat the worst financial crisis since the 1930s.
The G-20’s broader membership united developed economies, such as the U.S. and Japan, with developing nations, such as China and India, and allowed it to surpass the G-8. Its subsequent failure to follow through on promises to give those developing countries a bigger say in running the International Monetary Fund have reduced the G-20’s momentum.
From the single-minded challenge of rescuing the global economy from crisis, the G-20 at this summit will tackle a range of issues that risks sapping its focus. Economic growth recipes, climate change, international tax systems, financial regulation, and infrastructure investment all dot the agenda.