The unfavorable Chinese media coverage of President Barack Obama’s recent Asian trip reflects the mistaken impression that the president’s tour was designed to rally regional partners against Beijing. In fact, the president’s sojourn had many goals, but stirring up tensions between China and its neighbors in order to contain Beijing was not one of them. The main objectives were to reassure the region that the United States was not overly distracted by Ukraine; to dilute the military edge of the Asian Pivot caused by U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel’s effective tour a few weeks earlier; to deter North Korean aggression and reassure allies about security threats, and to reduce tensions between Japan and South Korea.
Washington policy makers are still assessing the global impact of Russian aggression against Ukraine. Much depends on how events will unfold in the coming months. Relations between Russia and the West will clearly be strained for years, since Putin looks unlikely to return the Crimea to Ukraine, and it is unclear whether Russia will attempt to acquire additional former Soviet territories. The U.S. military presence in Europe will probably see a modest rise in order to assure U.S. allies that are anxious about their security.
One concern is how the events in Ukraine will affect Asian international relations. Some fear that Russia’s successful annexation of a disputed territory through the use of force will encourage Asian governments to try to resolve their own territorial disputes. But Moscow’s successful war against Georgia in 2008 had no such effect. Ukraine is a weak military power without strong international security ties, whereas the Asian boundary disputes involve countries with powerful conventional forces, and in some cases, nuclear forces. Potential aggressors in Asia cannot exploit a strong fifth column equivalent to the ethnic Russians in Ukraine. The North Koreans in Japan can hardly declare a separatist government there, while the overseas Chinese are generally better assimilated in their countries of residence than the ethnic Russians were in Ukraine, many of whom genuinely wanted to join Russia.
Even so, President Obama sought to reassure local allies that the increased U.S. military presence in Europe would not weaken U.S. military capabilities or commitments in Asia. This problem arises mainly because the Pentagon’s Asian rebalancing has been modest, with few new deployments. While the relative percentage of U.S. military assets in the Asia-Pacific region has been rising, this trend has been balanced by a decrease in absolute U.S. capabilities. For example, as the U.S. Navy retires ships in Europe without replacing them, the percentage of the remaining ships elsewhere rises automatically. Although the United States now has a 10-year basing agreement with the Philippines, the Pentagon has considerably fewer soldiers, sailors, and marines to send there than it did in the 1970s, when the Philippines hosted several massive military bases. And the Philippine armed forces hardly represent a threat to China.
President Obama did affirm that all territories administered by Tokyo, including the disputed Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands, come under the protection of the Japan-U.S. Mutual Security Treaty. However, this is a longstanding U.S. position that was not unknown in Beijing. Obama also endorsed the Abe government’s efforts to normalize Japan’s security policies, such as regarding defense exports. But he sought to discourage both Tokyo and Beijing from pursuing confrontational policies toward each other or other countries. And the main purpose of Obama’s Asian trip was to negotiate a high-quality Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) Agreement with Tokyo, taking advantage of its government’s interest in revitalizing the national economy even at the risk of challenging powerful domestic interest groups. Although more progress with the TPP would have been welcome, the differences will take time to resolve.
Obama’s visit to South Korea was essential in continuing to renew their bilateral alliance, and a reciprocation of President Park’s visit to Washington last year. While expressing appreciation over how well their free trade agreement was being implemented, the two leaders said that they would search for new means to promote economic cooperation and growth, such as through innovative partnerships in IT, biotechnology, and nuclear energy sectors. Park has also recommitted South Korea to her predecessor’s vision of a Global Korea. The two governments pledged to extend their cooperation to new geographic and functional areas such as nuclear materials, global health, and cyber security. Obama tried to push along Korea-Japan reconciliation as best as he could.
Another function of the sojourn was to deter further North Korean provocations, especially another nuclear weapons test. Meeting South Korean concerns, Obama announced that the United States would consider delaying the date and changing the preconditions for a transition of the wartime operational command of South Korean forces. The visit also saw the first time the presidents of both countries visited the joint forces command headquarters. More positively, Obama endorsed Park’s Dresden vision of Korean unification, which would begin with strengthening humanitarian exchanges, especially between divided families, building common infrastructure for future joint economic development, and activities aimed at integrating the two societies and thereby overcoming their Cold War divisions. China was discussed primarily in regard to North Korea, with both leaders recognizing the need for Beijing’s help to restrain and transform North Korea. Park warned that there would be no point in resuming the Six-Party Talks, which is Beijing’s preferred security mechanism for dealing with Korea, if the DPRK conducts another test.
China would benefit from seeing no further DPRK aggression, and also from an effective regional security architecture. Still, the large volume of critical articles in the Chinese media, along with some government statements, suggests that the Obama administration still has incorporated China into its pivot policies. The Ukraine conflict reminds us of the dangers of alienating a powerful regional player. For example, that Russia and the West came into conflict regarding Ukraine’s trade alignment suggests the importance of reconciling the competing regional economic integration schemes of Beijing and Washington.
Washington has also had a problem integrating Russia into its Asia-Pacific policies. Although, that matters less after Ukraine because U.S. policy makers worry that Moscow might cause more troubles in the Pacific. Another pivot problem is that they have yet to move beyond the traditional spoke-and-wheels pattern of U.S. alliances. The United States has good relations with many Asian countries, and Obama’s trip to Malaysia was an effort to make more progress with a country that is not a U.S. ally. But Washington does not enjoy the multilateral boost that has benefited the U.S. alliances in Europe, where NATO provides a collective framework. The differences between Tokyo and Seoul are especially debilitating in terms of presenting a joint front against Pyongyang.
Richard Weitz is a Senior Fellow at the Hudson Institute.