The biggest headline for Hawaii from this week’s Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation meeting in Beijing is the agreement between the United States and China to ease travel visas. The move was praised by local interested parties, from Hawaii Tourism Authority president Mike McCartney to Hawaiian Airlines CEO Mark Dunkerley, as a way to boost island visitors from China.

But the links between Beijing and Honolulu go beyond visas and visitor spending. This week’s APEC meeting in China comes three years after Honolulu’s turn as host city. And that’s a useful perspective to consider what’s happened over that time to the Asia Pacific aspirations of this Hawaii-born president, and what may lie ahead in the region over the last two years of his administration.

obama in china 2014

President Barack Obama shakes hands with staff and their families at the U.S. Embassy in Beijing, China, on Monday.

White House/Pete Souza

In November 2011, the phrase “pivot to Asia” was newly coined — appearing in an article Secretary of State Hillary Clinton wrote in Foreign Policy magazine titled “America’s Pacific Century.”

Over time, the preferred wording of the administration shifted to “rebalance,” but the basic message remained the same: The United States would take specific steps to maintain and enhance its presence as a Pacific power.

In the months following the Honolulu APEC meeting, the most visible aspect of the pivot or rebalance was the military component. U.S. Marines began to rotate through postings in northern Australia. U.S. naval forces moved through Subic Bay in the Philippines at a pace not seen in 20 years.

Diplomatic contacts increased as well. Clinton became the first U.S. secretary of state in 50 years to visit Burma, and spent much time with her counterparts and national leaders at regional conferences and bilateral meetings. Senior people in the Treasury Department set up regular meetings with their counterparts in China.

Obama in Honolulu 2011

President Barack Obama meets with then-Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda of Japan at the APEC summit in Honolulu in 2011.

White House/Pete Souza

Three years ago, hopes for increased regional trade under the Trans Pacific Partnership or TPP were the topics of background briefings and news conferences. They were this week, too.

In fact, the annual APEC meetings offer a chance to see how those multilateral negotiations are going. Here are a couple of comments from the president himself:

• “This has the potential for being a historic achievement. It’s now up to all of us to see if we can finalize a deal that is both ambitious and comprehensive.”

• “There are still plenty of details to be worked out, but we are confident that we can do so. So we’ve directed our teams to finalize this agreement in the coming year.”

The first quote comes from this week in Beijing, ahead of meetings with potential TPP member governments. The second comes from remarks he made in Honolulu in 2011. So that’s one time line that has slipped by quite a bit. But in other areas, the absence of events can be marked as progress.

There have been no major diplomatic or military crises in the Asia Pacific over the past three years. While ISIS has flared in the Middle East, fears of Ebola have rocked West Africa, and Russian aggression in Ukraine has unsettled Europe, Asia has remained relatively calm. And the Obama administration can take at least partial credit for helping to keep the peace.

Conflicting territorial claims in the South and East China Seas involving China and a series of other countries are every bit as potentially disastrous today as they were three years ago, but so far nothing has exploded. A dispute over a Chinese oil rig deployed off the Vietnamese coast provoked an exchange of fire, but the situation did not escalate.

Asia has remained relatively calm, and the Obama administration can take at least partial credit for helping to keep the peace.

Rhetoric between China and Japan over territory and history has become harsh at times, but this week in Beijing the country’s two leaders met for a brief talk and one of the world’s most awkward photo opportunities in recent history.

While the United States has played no leading role and certainly no public role in these and other situations, U.S. policy in the region has had an impact on developments.

But the rest of the region has not remained static in the years since the Honolulu APEC meetings, especially when it comes to leadership.

Vladimir Putin is back in charge in Moscow (not that his influence ever strayed very far in the four years Dmitry Medvedev kept the president’s seat warm for him).  This week he announced deals struck with the relatively new leader of China, President Xi Jinping (officially in that role since March 2013).

Both these leaders will be in power much longer than President Obama will be. The interactions between Putin and Xi remain critical to the future of the Asia Pacific. So do China’s ambitions for regional economic influence.

While the United States has been pushing the TPP (a group neither China nor Russia has been invited to join), Beijing has been lobbying for what it calls a Free Trade Area of the Asia Pacific. Earlier this year, China launched a regional development bank with 20 other Asian governments, and this week it announced a $40 billion fund to improve trade within the region. 

So in grading its performance in the Asia Pacific in the years since the Honolulu APEC meetings, the Obama administration gets an incomplete. There’s still time to accomplish more. But that requires focused attention, and an understanding that regional aspirations and a priority on the Asia Pacific are not policy characteristics that are unique to the United States.

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About the Author

  • Bill Dorman
    Bill Dorman is News Director at Hawaii Public Radio. He lived and worked in Asia for 10 years, covering stories from more than a dozen countries and territories for CNN and Bloomberg News. His broadcast experience also includes work in New York and Washington, D.C. His “Asia Minute” feature can be heard weekday mornings on HPR.