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Foreign Policy

Obama’s “Rebalancing” to Asia-Pacific Losing Balance

May 07 , 2014
  • Fu Mengzi

    VP, China Institutes of Contemporary Int'l Relations

Promoting a “rebalance” to the Asia-Pacific was considered a significant strategic motive behind Barack Obama’s just-concluded four-nation trip to the region. The visits have reassured American allies Japan, Republic of Korea, and the Philippines. According to the US-Filipino security cooperation agreement, the US will expand its military presence in the Philippines; The first US presidential visit to Malaysia in 48 years indicated serious attention to a non-ally. However, Obama’s trip yielded more fanfare than substance. That his attempt to promote “rebalancing” to the Asia-Pacific is losing balance, in particular, could become an unexpected strategic outcome of this very trip. 

Firstly, an imbalanced US intervention in East Asia is triggering the danger of a new strategic disequilibrium. During his visit to Japan, which actually lasted only one day and two nights, Obama finally stated: “The policy of the United States is clear: The Senkaku islands (our Diaoyu Island and those affiliated to it) are administered by Japan, and therefore fall under the US-Japan treaty.” This was taken by Tokyo as a “significant diplomatic triumph”. The US has claimed a no-position stance regarding the sovereignty over the Diaoyu Islands, and called on China and Japan to resolve disputes peacefully. Yet, for the first time as US president, Obama made a biased statement in favor of Japan, which harms China’s sovereignty and rightful interests. It disregards Chinese national sovereignty, and has certainly caused resolute objection from China. Japan also has island disputes with the ROK. Dokdo (called Takeshima in Japan), which are administered by the ROK. Given Japan’s actions regarding the island, as well as cooling bilateral ties, both the ROK public and the government hope that the US can clarify its position on the issue, and declare that Dokdo falls under the US-Korea treaty. However, Obama didn’t make a policy statement similar to the one on the Diaoyu Islands. That shows the US is treating allies differently. The ROK surely felt Obama’s imbalance, and was disappointed. Obama’s stance will result in a diplomatic tug of war between Japan and the ROK. The ROK will continue to strive to uphold the US stance that Dokda falls under the US-Korea treaty; Japan, on the other hand, will make every effort to oppose any relaxation of US policies in favor of the ROK. As to the China-Japan islands disputes and the South China Sea issues, Japan and the other claimants will try their best to secure American support; and China will be very vigilant against any further moves on the US’ part. 

Obama’s East Asia trip, and particularly his remarks on island disputes, fostered a new sense of distrust between both allies and non-allies. The US has clarified its strategies on some issues; but maintained ambiguity on others. On one hand, it vowed to support Japan and the Philippines. On the other hand, it appealed for the peaceful resolution of disputes. Such contradiction and imbalance will result in dangerous consequences. 

Secondly, Obama’s offers haven’t bought allies’ compromise on the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP)., which is essential to Obama’s plan of doubling US exports, and a significant US strategy to dominate the establishment of an Asia-Pacific economic and trade liberalization regime, as well as the formulation of new rules for regional trade in the post-financial crisis era. Therefore, luring and pressing Japan and others to compromise on the matter was another significant mission of Obama’s. Though Obama had made a statement in favor of Japan on the China-Japan islands disputes, and endorsed Japanese attempts to lift the ban on the right to collective self-defense, he saw no Japanese concession or willingness to open its market to agricultural products, effectively invalidating his strategy of promoting the TPP. Since the ROK has reached a bilateral free trade agreement with the US and expects the latter to loosen terms regarding the TPP, it has chosen to avoid substantial moves. Thanks to its worries about liberalizing market reforms, Malaysia is less than enthusiastic about promoting TPP negotiations. Especially because he didn’t get any Japanese concession on the TPP, the achievements Obama had anticipated before the trip remain illusive. 

Lastly, China’s shadow followed Obama all the way through his trip to East Asia. Even his visit to Malaysia had to do with China. But his trip cannot dampen most countries’ enthusiasm for better ties with China. 

The first visit to Malaysia by a US president in almost a half-century revealed an intention to boost ties with non-allied countries, while enhancing those with allies. Obama’s attention to Malaysia also has to do with Chinese factors. China and Malaysia have maintained fine political and economic relations. Though Malaysia is also a claimant in the South China Sea disputes, it has been friendly to China, and bilateral political mutual trust has been on the rise. Malaysia is China’s major trade partner in ASEAN, with bilateral trade reaching $100 billion. Therefore, an important consideration behind Obama’s visit to Malaysia was balancing its strengthening political and economic ties with China. It is worth pointing out that Obama’s trip induced an obvious diplomatic implication: one country’s success in effectively developing political and economic ties with China will lead to more room for the US to engage in more diplomatic maneuvers with that country, which in turn inspires other countries to strengthen ties with China. Obama’s rebalancing is unlikely to change other countries, including Malaysia’s, will to develop ties with China. This is because China’s diplomatic philosophy of “friendliness, sincerity, benefits, tolerance”, mutual respect, and mutually beneficial cooperation will be increasingly appreciated. Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Tun Razak said during Obama’s visit that he didn’t want Malaysia to be trapped in a choice between the US and China. 

China and the US are big countries in the Asia-Pacific. China appreciates a constructive US presence in the region. But it will also be unequivocally opposed to the US endangering Chinese national interests while developing ties with other Asia-Pacific nations. Both China and the US have important national interests in the Asia-Pacific. But the two countries’ strategic perspectives should transcend the Asia-Pacific. On many issues, if China and the US can respect and understand each other, it will benefit the Asia-Pacific, and be conducive to jointly meeting the challenges of increasingly imperative global and regional issues.

Fu Mengzi, Vice President, China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations.

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