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Foreign Policy

Obama’s Agenda in Asia

Apr 10 , 2014

The President’s trip to Asia is being billed by pundits, especially those critical of him for supposedly ignoring the region, as an opportunity to “make up” for having missed the previously planned trip and to provide security reassurances to East Asian partners.  Obama has been criticized in some quarters for leaving the field to Chinese leaders when he had to cancel last year’s trip.  And his preoccupation with the Middle East and Crimea has opened him up to a further criticism that he has “neglected” East Asia and abandoned the promised “rebalancing.” 

When the President introduced the notion of rebalancing in a speech to the Australian parliament in November 2011, he promised that reductions in US military spending would not apply to Asia. He reaffirmed security commitments to the region, promised to strengthen US military capabilities and remain a Pacific power, and vowed to expand economic partnerships under the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP).  Statements such as these have been repeated several times since by top US officials, and although there is always room to do more, Asia has not been neglected militarily, economically, or politically.  Just ask China. 

In Japan, the first leg of the trip, word of what Obama can expect was not long in seeping out.  Reportedly, Abe Shinzo’s administration is concerned about the lack of a strong US response to Russian annexation of Crimea.  Despite security obligations to Japan, and a long history of reaffirmation of the US-Japan Security Treaty, the Japanese are worried that the United States might leave Japan in the lurch in the event of a major new confrontation with China over the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands.  Supposed US weakness in response to Russia’s annexation of Crimea has the Japanese on edge, these reports say; and thus they want a strong commitment to come to Japan’s defense against China. 

There is something of diplomatic blackmail here, all too common in US dealings with allies.  The pattern is that the ally looks for reasons to extract additional commitments from the US, either in words, promises, or money and weapons.  In Japan’s case today, the pattern seems fairly transparent, since Abe has been looking for opportunities to “normalize” Japan’s security situation ever since he took office.  Portraying the U.S. commitment to Japan as questionable gives him leeway not only to continue making the case for a stronger and less constrained Japanese military, but also to squeeze the Americans for at least taking an additional step toward an ironclad promise to assist Japan in the next crisis over the Senkakus.  

At present, the official US stance is that while its commitment to protect Japan is ironclad, that commitment does not necessarily apply to protection of the islands, whose sovereignty is in dispute.  Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel said on April 4, en route to Japan: “There is no indication or weakness on the part of the United States as to our complete and absolute commitment to the security of Japan.”  The Japanese will seek more than that, but if US leaders are wise to the game, they will not offer more.  After all, as I and several other analysts have written, the US military’s preponderance in East Asia already reflects not just a rebalancing but an ongoing imbalance of power, surely enough to deter any real threat.  The view of some foreign-policy hawks that the “China challenge” is slowly but surely eroding US strength in Asia-Pacific and leading inexorably to China’s replacement of the United States as the number-one regional power may be a bargaining point for US allies, but it doesn’t reflect strategic realities—something Chinese leaders understand quite well. 

Obama need not be on the defensive in Japan.  He could have plenty to say to Abe about Japan’s problematic relations with South Korea and China.  In line with his engagement philosophy, Obama might again stress—as he apparently did most recently in a trilateral meeting in The Hague with the Koreans and Japanese—the importance of rediscovering the virtues of diplomacy and restoring normal relations with Japan’s neighbors.  It is entirely possible, of course, that Obama will use the occasion to endorse collaboration against a China threat; but the greater probability is that he will quietly encourage Abe to be more sensitive to historical grievances—such as stopping visits to the Yasukuni Shrine for Japanese war dead—and return to the time in 2008 when China and Japan agreed to joint development of the Senkakus/Diaoyudao area’s resources.

With South Korea as well as Japan, Obama is likely to reiterate longstanding assurances of strong alliance ties in the face of the latest North Korean ballistic missile tests, possible use of drones, and speculation about an upcoming fourth nuclear test. South Korea has already received a US endorsement of its deployment of longer-range missiles capable of reaching any part of North Korea.  The main item on the agenda with Seoul may be the difficult and dangerous question of what to do should there be a repeat of an artillery exchange with the North across the Northern Limit Line in the Yellow Sea, a line Pyongyang does not accept.  Next time around, the Park Geun-hye government may want to take stronger action than Washington finds acceptable.  For Obama, even as he basically continues the policies toward North Korea of his predecessor, the last thing he needs right now is a military confrontation on the Korean peninsula brought on by a localized exchange of fire.  Park may want to draw a red line, but Obama is likely to believe he has drawn one red line too many. 

The recently tense Philippines relationship with China over a disputed shoal in the South China Sea will surely be at the top of Obama’s agenda with Manila.  Filipino aircraft had to deliver supplies to its personnel aboard a sunken ship after China blocked access at sea.  How this latest confrontation will continue is hard to say, but it raises two issues: the relevance of the 2002 China-ASEAN code of conduct (officially, the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea) that both countries signed, and promised in doing so not to take actions that would disturb the status quo and use only peaceful means to resolve disputes; and, specifically for Washington, the implications of its security treaty with the Philippines for the dispute.  Here, as with Japan, an ally may seek some new commitment, in word or deed, in this case beyond the current US position that calls for maintaining the status quo “pending resolution of competing claims.”  Obama would do well to urge a diplomatic solution and a recommitment by China and the Philippines to the spirit and letter of the 2002 declaration. 

Obama may have to answer in all these countries, plus Indonesia, to revelations in the Edward Snowden documents of US and Australian spying on their political and military leaders.  The German magazine Der Spiegel revealed that Malaysia was a particular target of the National Security Agency’s “Nimrod” program, the same one that spied on Angela Merkel and damaged US relations with Germany.  The NSA evidently shares Nimrod’s findings with Australia, Britain, Canada, and New Zealand.  One can imagine that the disappearance of Malaysian Airlines flight 370, marked by considerable Malaysian incompetence in managing information about it, was one recent element in the telecommunications spying operation.  Obama may have to follow his Australian colleagues in promising to end Nimrod by signing on to a code of conduct. 

As always, promoting trade will be on the President’s itinerary at every stopover.  Obama will have to finesse the question of how he can get the TPP through Congress when members of his own party are among opponents of it.  But mostly this is a trip about US alliance politics.  The foremost issue is the impact Obama’s dealings with key Asian allies will have on relations with China, which Obama will not visit this time but may visit in November.  Beijing no doubt will be looking for signs that US alliance politics will not mean some Cold War style alignment against it due to the shoring up of security relations.  Providing reassurances is one thing, and to be expected during the trip.  But should Obama take the extra step that Japan and the Philippines may seek, Beijing is likely to assail it as reflecting a “Cold War mentality” in US policy that amounts to seeking to contain China. And in that case, one arena of US-China cooperation—restraining North Korea—will likely vanish. 

Mel Gurtov is Professor Emeritus of Political Science at Portland State University (Oregon) and Editor-in-Chief of Asian Perspective.  His latest book is Will This Be China’s Century? A Skeptic’s View (Lynne Rienner, 2013).  His foreign-policy blog, “In the Human Interest,” is at

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