Despite troubles elsewhere, opportunity beckons for America in Asia
By Ian Bremmer, president, Eurasia Group
Who would have thought Barack Obama would become a foreign-policy president? It’s not what he was elected for, but crises abroad and gridlock at home have forced him to focus on foreign policy—with mixed results.
This will endure in 2015. Russia will keep strangling Ukraine. Islamic State (IS) will cement its foothold. While it may seem that these growing threats would reinvigorate NATO with new purpose, they will actually expose and exacerbate its divisions. It may not be on the radar yet, but in 2015 the transatlantic relationship will erode.
The shortcomings of American leadership and the growing tensions with European partners will be clearest in dealings with Russia. In the long run, Vladimir Putin’s Ukraine policy will undermine his country’s economy and prompt Europeans to wean themselves off Russian energy. Yet in 2015, as Mr Obama puts extra pressure on Russia, America will haemorrhage support from European allies with much more to lose. Some nato members worry that America’s attention will drift to the next hotspot while they remain stuck with a bellicose neighbour.
Responding to IS will be an increasingly uphill battle. The American-led coalition is large, which gives it staying power, but it makes the partnership unwieldy and progress piecemeal. The campaign against is has been largely Sunni from the air, with collaboration from the Gulf states for strikes. Yet any chance for lasting success on the ground will need Shia buy-in—which will only get harder to secure as sectarian tensions grow. In 2015, watch America edge back toward old authoritarian allies and the Arab-spring movement hit the scrapheap. The coalition will fragment as the best-funded terrorist group in history stays entrenched in Iraq and Syria.
Thankfully, Asia should be more benign. Despite flare-ups in the South and East China Seas, geopolitics in Asia will be more bluster than searing conflict. Strong leaders in Asia’s three most powerful nations—Shinzo Abe in Japan, Xi Jinping in China and Narendra Modi in India—will be a stabilising force. All three have staked their careers on monumental domestic reforms that will impel them to keep their focus at home and conflict to a minimum. As long as progress on their reforms continues, none of them is looking for trouble; danger will rise only if reforms go badly wrong, or if America mismanages its relationship with China.
That relationship has been warmer of late—but there is a diplomatic minefield ahead. Ructions between America and Mr Putin will push China closer to Russia. The two countries finalised a 30-year, $400 billion gas deal after Russia dropped its asking price due to tensions with the West. It’s not just transactional: China views a deeper relationship with Russia as a hedge against its own potential falling-out with America.
Xi Jinping has made sufficient progress with his anti-corruption crackdown and economic reforms for pushback from influential Chinese with vested interests to grow; more success will beget more backlash. If Mr Xi’s agenda runs into serious trouble, all bets are off with Chinese behaviour—China could lash out abroad to secure support at home. America and its allies make an easy scapegoat, should Beijing want to punish foreign businesses or blame foreign agents for unrest (as was seen in Hong Kong).
Down the road, the Russia-China alignment could become a more formalised alliance, undermining America’s foreign-policy initiatives. Germany and China are tightening their economic partnership; ruptures between America and Europe could push Berlin closer to Beijing. In 2015 America must actively engage China to avoid steps in this direction.
What’s more, engagement in Asia could lock in a rare foreign-policy win for Washington. The Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), which would bring 12 countries representing nearly 40% of global GDP into a free-trade pact, is the one big strategic achievement that American leadership could push over the finish line in 2015. It would create tighter Pacific-rim alliances at a time of rising concern about China’s ambitions. The deal would generate big trade gains, and offers Mr Abe an external justification for his economic reforms.
So what’s the hold-up? Progress has stalled owing to snags between Japan and America: Japan won’t compromise on protections for its farmers, nor will America on the car industry. But with distracting American mid-term elections out of the way, a concerted effort could get tpp over the goal line.
The irony is that Mr Obama has taken a lot of criticism for abandoning his “pivot” to Asia in the face of other concerns, yet it is still the region where he is having the most foreign-policy success. With active attention, America should be able to expand on that in 2015.