Striding confidently across the tarmac at the Palm Springs International Airport on Feb. 16, President Barack Obama was leaving what has become his favorite winter getaway spot with a bit of swagger.
He had just come from a press conference where he argued that he, not the GOP-controlled Senate, held the constitutional high ground in the coming fight over nominating a successor to Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, who died over the weekend. And he made it clear that he doesn’t think Donald Trump will be elected president.
While the sharp-elbowed tactics of American politics soaked up much of the press conference, it is a much more strategic vision that occupied most of the president’s perhaps final trip to the Coachella Valley, his sixth in the past three years.
The U.S.-ASEAN Summit, as the meeting of the 10 members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations and the United States was called, is a demonstration of the administration’s desire to play a much longer game in countering the rising power of China.
While critics, including Trump, suggest that confrontation, draconian tariffs and demands that North Korea be punished are the way forward, Obama has carved out a different approach with his “pivot to Asia.” Here are a few thoughts:
• Commerce matters. The ASEAN group’s economy is roughly the size of California and many of its nations are signed on to the Trans Pacific Partnership trade agreement that knocks down tariffs and seeks to boost trade. The mayor of Palm Springs told several reporters that Chinese tourism to the area skyrocketed after Obama met with Chinese premier Xi Jinping in the desert.
• There won’t be any “Asian spring.” The ASEAN summit welcomed leaders of some of the world’s most authoritarian regimes to the Sunnyland resort in Rancho Mirage, where Obama hosted Xi earlier. Malaysian leader Najib Razak has been under investigation amid allegations he may have diverted a $700 million political donation for his own use. He says the money was used to fund his 2013 election campaign. Protesters’ demands that the president make a statement about human rights were largely ignored.
• China’s bullying tactics will not go unmarked. The U.S. is allying with the Philippines and Indonesia to strengthen its military hand in the South China Sea, which has been treated by China as its own lake. Will the response be effective? More likely it will be high-stakes political theater with neither side wanting to actually start shooting.
• Building bridges with Muslim nations outside the Middle East could matter. Indonesia and Malaysia are majority Muslim nations who are actually anti-communist at their political core.
In the end, the U.S. seems to be betting that a strengthening China that attempts to bully the ASEAN states will simply drive them into closer alliances with the U.S. On the other hand, a China that falters badly on the economic growth path will lose sway in the region, handing the U.S. a quiet victory.
Playground for presidents
California continues to attract a certain presidential mystique.
Although President Obama doesn’t have the same sort of Western White House that Ronald and Nancy Reagan enjoyed in Santa Barbara, there is a sense that the Coachella Valley has become the Obama Administration’s winter watering hole.
In this, the 44th president shares an affinity with Dwight D. Eisenhower who visited the La Quinta resort a number of times. It is worth noting that as the president was enjoying rounds of golf in Rancho Mirage and at the PGA West site near La Quinta, the Washington, D.C. area was pummeled with several inches of snow.
• Editor Henry Dubroff reported this column from Palm Springs. Reach him at [email protected]