Why Obama must be in Asia

The Obama trip to Asia fits a pattern of recent presidents trying to help a fractious region avoid conflicts by uniting around shared values. Pivotal to this US role are a regional trade pact and China's acceptance of universal values.

AP Photo
President Obama watches South Korean President Park Geun-hye, left, and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, right, move to their seats at the opposite ends of the table to start their trilateral meeting in the Netherlands last month.Tokyo and Seoul remain at odds over a territorial dispute and lingering Korean resentment of Japanese aggression before and during World War II.

Ever wonder why American leaders travel to Asia so often?

Barack Obama’s trip this week fits a pattern of frequent presidential visits going back decades. The reason is not because Asia is big, dynamic, or dangerous. Rather, the United States is the only country – at least for now – able to assist a fractious region in working toward eventual unity around common values.

Largely on their own, Europe and Latin America have each created a regional unity of countries that promises to ensure peace and prosperity. Asia, which is still divided by deep rivalries, territorial tensions, and unresolved war histories, needs help. Mr. Obama, like three presidents before him, seems to embrace the task, although not always enough.

Here’s a sample of what the Obama administration has done over five years:

It has agreed that the US and China must find a new model of great-power relations to accommodate China’s rise on the world scene. It has tried to foster better ties between Japan and South Korea over issues of Japanese wartime aggression. It has nudged Myanmar (Burma) toward democracy. It has insisted that island disputes in the South China Sea be resolved peacefully and multilaterally. And it has begun to “rebalance” (or pivot) US resources toward Asia and away from Europe and the Middle East.

Perhaps most central to this guiding US hand is Obama’s push to create a free-trade zone known as the Trans-Pacific Partnership. Like the European Union, this pact would accelerate economic cooperation within Asia in hopes of mellowing, if not dissolving, its political divisions.

For the trade talks to succeed, an agreement between Japan and the US is critical. Obama’s two-night visit to Tokyo must bring a breakthrough on difficult bilateral issues, such as rice imports into Japan. Asia needs the two economic giants to find common ground in order for a final pact to bring Asia closer.

In visits to South Korea, Malaysia, and the Philippines, the president must be careful to shore up US support of these countries without reinforcing an impression in China that it is being encircled by American allies. Beijing’s strategic interests are based largely on pursuing its national interests rather than accommodating neighbors in shared goals. It largely rejects the notion of “universal values,” even banning its controlled press from using phrases such as “constitutional democracy” or “independent judiciary.” This makes it difficult for China to accept US intentions toward Asia as benign, or even helpful.

Yet China has made moves to establish some order in Asia. It conducts joint military exercises and pursues bilateral trade pacts. It is active in regional organizations, although it often acts as a bully. And it cannot deny that its economic rise has relied heavily on the openness of foreign markets, especially those of the US, or the willingness of the US to guard Asia’s sea lanes.

Since the 1980s, an increase in the number of Asian democracies has reduced ardent nationalism, which helps make it easier for such countries to form bonds with each other. In the region’s nondemocracies, such as China, a single party defines the nation’s identity. And those parties often need to incite nationalism to stay in power.

For Obama’s trip to be a success, he must bring progress in helping Asia rise above each nation’s interests. Asia can become more than simply a safe place that balances the power relationships of each state. It must stand for common principles that guide the region and the global behavior of each country. Otherwise, it will need to keep playing host to American presidents.

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