Obama's Asia trip: a balancing act, amid doubts about US resolve

On an eight-day, four-nation tour of Asia, beginning Tuesday, President Obama aims to boost credibility of his US 'pivot' to Asia, while reassuring Beijing that the goal is not to contain China.

Carolyn Kaster/AP
President Obama, here speaking in the briefing room of the White House on April 17, begins an eight-day Asia-Pacific trip on Tuesday. He will visit Japan, South Korea, Malaysia, and the Philippines in a bid to convince trading partners that the US 'pivot' to Asia is real.

President Obama sets off on an eight-day, four-country Asia-Pacific trip Tuesday with the delicate task of convincing allies in the region that his vaunted “Asia pivot” is more than just rhetoric – even while reassuring Beijing that US policy is not about containing China.

Mr. Obama, whose signature “Asia pivot,” announced in 2009, was supposed to redirect American foreign policy emphasis away from the Middle East to the economically dynamic Asian-Pacific region, will confront deepening concerns in the countries he’ll visit – Japan, South Korea, Malaysia, and, to a lesser degree, the Philippines – that the turn to Asia never got much beyond words.

America’s Asia partners worry that, despite Obama’s intentions, US foreign policy interests have remained largely focused on the Middle East – the Syrian conflict, pursuit of Israeli-Palestinian peace, Iranian nuclear talks, even the drawdown from Afghanistan – and are, more recently, centered on the crisis in Ukraine.

But at the same time, China remains suspicious that, under Obama, the US is reasserting itself as a “Pacific nation,” in large part as a means of containing a rising China and limiting what China sees as its legitimate assertiveness in the region. Although China is not on Obama’s itinerary – he does plan to visit China in the fall – there is little doubt that Beijing will be watching the trip closely.

“China will be listening with large ears to the entire trip,” says Sheila Smith, senior fellow for Japan studies at the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington. And not just listening, but speaking out, other regional experts say, if Obama offers any specific comments on the regional disputes concerning the South China Sea.

As a result, Obama will find himself on a tightrope for much of his trip, balancing between meeting the expectations of America’s allies in the region while avoiding words that might raise Chinese suspicions about US motives.

The Obama administration has to “try to find a way to explain its priorities, how it wants to strengthen ties with the allies, but also cooperate with China,” says Michael Green, who was senior director for Asia in the George W. Bush White House and is now senior vice president for Asia at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. “It’s a tricky balancing act.”

Noting how easily the slightest emphasis on one side of the balance can set off alarms on the other, Mr. Green says that comments from senior administration officials in support of China’s recent articulation of a new model of great-power relations between the US and China have raised concerns in Japan and elsewhere in Asia of some form of “US-China condominium.”

Obama is keen to see that his Asia trip, originally planned for last fall before the government shutdown scuttled it, places significant emphasis on Asian-Pacific prosperity and efforts to expand trans-Pacific trade – and is not dominated by security issues.

The president will have an opportunity to set the tone on his first stop, in Tokyo Wednesday night (Obama will make a stop Tuesday in the Pacific Northwest to survey landslide damage in Oso, Wash.).

The US and Japan have been trying to reach a bilateral agreement on tariff reductions that could reinvigorate stalled negotiations on a broader regional trade accord known as TPP, for Trans-Pacific Partnership. The bilateral talks have come down to easing tariffs on some of the most disputed imports on each side – pork and beef for the Japanese, and autos, and in particular trucks, for the US – but an accord that Obama and Japanese Prime Minster Shinzo Abe could announce during the visit would send a strong signal to the rest of the 10-nation TPP, regional experts say, and would give a positive economic emphasis to the rest of Obama’s trip.

But some regional experts worry that events in Ukraine – and, in particular, the view espoused by some of the Japanese media that a “weak” US response to Russian actions in Ukraine could portend an equally docile response in the event of Chinese aggression in the South China Sea – could end up overshadowing Obama’s upbeat economic focus.

“What I would be disappointed in would be if Ukraine dominates … so that Asia doesn’t get to be the focal point of the conversation,” says CFR’s Ms. Smith.

While in Tokyo, Obama will sit down for an extensive conversation with Prime Minister Abe – some US-Japan analysts say the two leaders have not “clicked” in their previous meetings – and will also meet with Japanese Emperor Akihito.

In South Korea, Obama’s conversation with President Park Geun-hye will focus on North Korea – with some regional analysts advising the world not to be surprised if the attention-craving leadership in Pyongyang decides to launch some kind of provocative action during Obama’s visit.

In Malaysia, Obama – the first US president to visit since Lyndon Johnson – is expected to highlight the Southeast Asian giant’s economic and democratic progress. But the president will also be under pressure from human rights activists not to gloss over what many say are serious shortcomings on rights – especially concerning the Muslim-majority country’s substantial religious minorities – under Prime Minister Najib Tun Razak, says Joshua Kurlantzick, CFR’s senior fellow for Southeast Asia.

Obama should “celebrate” Malaysia’s impressive post-World War II economic development, Mr. Kurlantzick says, even while taking every opportunity to highlight the country’s diversity.

Finally, it’s in the Philippines that Obama may have his easiest time, Kurlantzick says, because it is the country on the trip where Obama’s “pivot” has shown the most concrete results, such as a recently negotiated agreement on rotating US troops into Filipino military bases, stepped-up joint exercises, and plans to help strengthen the country’s weak navy.

Obama can also expect a warm welcome from Filipinos in the wake of the substantial US disaster assistance after typhoon Haiyan struck a swath of central Philippines last November.

Even in the countries where doubts about the “pivot” and America’s staying power in Asia are stronger, Obama can expect his visit will go some distance in allaying such concerns, some analysts say.

“The president’s presence by itself will speak to the anxiety in the region,” says CFR’s Smith.

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