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Foreign Policy

Obama in Asia, with China in Mind

May 02 , 2014

Obama arrived in an Asia torn by grief.  South Koreans were outraged over the sinking of a ferry boat off Jindo, in which hundreds of high school students perished.  And Chinese and others were outraged over the disappearance of ML-370 in the Indian Ocean and the persistent mishandling of rescue efforts by the Malaysian government.  But Obama had his own preoccupations, especially over a looming breakdown of Israel-Palestine peace talks and the possibility of a second Russian invasion and annexation of Ukraine’s territory.  Perhaps the fact that the long anticipated trip produced few striking results may be attributed to these preoccupations. 

Although China was not on the itinerary, it certainly was the elephant in the room. In Japan, Obama’s first stop, the main topic was already news even before he deplaned.  Responding to questions from Yomiuri Shimbun on the territorial dispute with China, he reiterated defense of Japan’s position: “The policy of the United States is clear—the Senkaku Islands are administered by Japan and therefore fall within the scope of Article 5 of the U.S.-Japan Treaty of Mutual Cooperation and Security. And we oppose any unilateral attempts to undermine Japan’s administration of these islands.” Regarding constitutional revision, Obama again seemed to play to Abe’s hand, writing: “I commend Prime Minister Abe for his efforts to strengthen Japan’s defense forces and to deepen the coordination between our militaries, including by reviewing existing limits on the exercise of collective self-defense,” the president said.  He hoped the Japanese Self-Defense Forces would “do more within the framework of our alliance.” 

In the Joint Statement released at the end of Obama’s visit, the commitment to defense of the Senkakus and to collective self-defense was repeated, but with added emphasis: 

The United States opposes any unilateral action that seeks to undermine Japan’s administration of the Senkaku Islands. The United States appreciates Japan’s establishment of a National Security Council and creation of a legal framework for information security that will facilitate enhanced policy and intelligence coordination between the two countries.  The United States welcomes and supports Japan’s consideration of the matter of exercising the right of collective self-defense.  The United States and Japan reaffirmed the importance of the U.S. extended deterrence to maintain regional security.  The United States and Japan are also making sustained progress towards realizing a geographically distributed, operationally resilient and politically sustainable U.S. force posture in the Asia Pacific, including the development of Guam as a strategic hub.   

The effort to mitigate China’s predictably upset reaction to these words was not very forceful.  In the only reference to China, the Joint Statement says: “The United States and Japan recognize that China can play an important role in addressing all of these challenges [in the Middle East and Ukraine], and both countries reaffirm their interest in building a productive and constructive relationship with China.” Mention was made of the need for a code of conduct, recourse to international maritime law, and use of international arbitration as ways to prevent future incidents.  In answer to a reporter’s question, Obama insisted he was not drawing a red line for China.  But Obama did not address China’s claim of sovereignty over Diayudao (Senkaku); nor did he mention the once-promising approach of joint China-Japan development of East China Sea resources.  

On the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade pact, Obama and Abe were unable to reach agreement—a fact clear to everyone, yet obscured by the Joint Statement’s claim that “Today, we have identified a path forward on important bilateral TPP issues.” Nothing was stated to back up the claim.  Political obstacles in both countries are responsible for the lack of progress—in Japan, where entrenched agricultural interests see to it that tariff barriers to US beef, autos, and other products remain in place; and in the US, where lack of fast-track authority on the TPP, thanks to Democrats, hamstring Obama, as well as leave other governments that are intent on joining the TPP hanging on a deal with Japan. 

One important item evidently not on Obama’s Japan agenda is the ongoing plight of Japan’s nuclear industry.  As I have written elsewhere (“Rotting at the Core: Why There is No End to Japan’s Nuclear Crisis,” Global Asia, vol. 9, No. 1 [Spring 2014], pp. 98-101), notwithstanding severe criticisms by independent investigators of the government and Tokyo Electric Power Company during the Fukushima nuclear accident in 2011, and the ongoing leaks of radioactive water from the Fukushima Daiichi plants, the Abe administration is intent on reactivating Japan’s fifty-four nuclear reactors.  The issue is not just a matter of the health and safety of Japanese; evidence is accumulating that Fukushima’s radiation is affecting the US and Canadian West Coast waters and fish. Yet while the Japanese press has been diligently questioning Abe’s claims that the safety standards of the reactors now are among “the world’s strictest,” Washington has been silent.  It seems that Obama, on this issue as on Diaoyudao/Senkaku, has chosen not to cause friction in the alliance by raising uncomfortable questions. 

South Koreans ordinarily might have been concerned about a possible new North Korean nuclear-weapon test.  But the ferry boat accident turned attention to—and prompted “Confucian guilt” among—the generation perceived as being responsible for the accident.  As two journalists wrote, “Total strangers are accepting joint, generational responsibility for a world so poorly and cynically run that the Sewol ferry did not seem to have had a proper safety examination and the passengers were not given any safety lessons in advance of the tragedy.” 

President Obama apologized for arriving at an inopportune moment.  But with intelligence pointing to an imminent North Korean nuclear weapon test, he vowed to “apply pressure . . . further sanctions that have even more bite.”  President Park Geun-hye said another North Korean test would “fundamentally change the Northeast Asia security landscape.”  Both leaders warned North Korea not to test again, even as Obama acknowledged that there is no “magic bullet” for dealing with North Korea. In that case, their methods for dealing with the DPRK raise questions.  Why would more sanctions make North Korea more amenable to changing course on its nuclear and missile programs?  Extremely unlikely. Will a fourth nuclear test—the first three were in 2006, 2009, and 2013—really change the regional security landscape?  Hardly.  Not only do US and ROK forces have overwhelming conventional and nuclear war capability compared with North Korea.  Additionally, Park apparently persuaded Obama to delay once again transfer of wartime command authority over South Korean troops (known as OPCON) from the US to the ROK. It had been scheduled for next year. The delay supposedly sends a signal to North Korea of the ongoing US commitment to South Korea’s defense. 

In the Philippines, the President’s last stop, the two governments as expected signed an agreement to allow for a “rotational presence” of US forces, much like the one with Australia that permits a US deployment of 2500 marines at Darwin.  In the Philippines case, the agreement marks a return of US forces via joint training and exercising with the Filipino armed forces as they shift to an “external security-focused mission”.  Did that new mission mean China?  The new Philippines mission was said to include “maritime security” as well as weapons of mass destruction and disaster relief.  And at the press briefing, one of Obama’s advisers noted that the agreement would serve the Philippines’ desire for a “credible minimum deterrence.”  Yet, he said, “we’re not doing this because of China.”  Really?  Who else is there to deter? 

So was the Asia trip a success?  My guess is that Obama’s team believes that, except for the TPP, it was: allies were provided with strategic reassurances, security ties with the Philippines and Malaysia were strengthened, and China’s overt criticisms were fairly muted.  Yet Obama broke no new ground in Asia policy.  His trip, long overdue, employed rhetoric little different from that of previous administrations.  Talk about a stabilizing US presence, strengthening alliances, providing reassurances, and so on evoked other times during as well as since the Cold War.  One searches in vain for new thinking, in particular on conflict resolution in the East China Sea and on the Korean peninsula.  For instance, I would have liked to see a more innovative approach to North Korea.  Instead—as in Japan—it was mere reiteration of standard policy positions.  As David Sanger reported in the New York Times of April 25, Obama’s advisers on North Korea feel “stuck” as to policy options.  But what they haven’t really explored is engagement.  Meantime, Kim Jong-un has evidently decided to move ahead on refining nuclear weapons, perhaps with a view to miniaturizing one so that it can fit on an intercontinental missile.  Such a step would surely spell another Korea crisis. 

Seasoned observers believe that China really was most on the President’s mind, with one—Jeffrey Bader, who served on Obama’s National Security Council—even suggesting that the President’s “message” to China was: “Don’t think that what Putin is doing in eastern Ukraine is so brilliant that you should be inspired by it.” That assessment may be a matter of looking through binoculars from the wrong end.  The Chinese are surely worried about the resurrection of US containment, not about mimicking Putin.  Obama did say once again that the US is not out to contain China, and Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel, visiting China in advance of Obama’s trip, did seem to make progress on military-to-military relations with China. Yet Obama visited four of the eight countries in East Asia with which the US has military ties of one sort or another. As the Chinese say, bai wen bu ru yi jian: seeing is believing. 

Mel Gurtov is Professor Emeritus of Political Science at Portland State University, Oregon.  He is Editor-in-Chief of Asian Perspective and writes a foreign-policy blog, “In the Human Interest,” at

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