Charles Dharapak/AP Photo
President Obama visits the Great Buddha of Kamakura with Michiko Sato, temple director, and Takao Sato, the 15th chief monk of the temple, at Kotokuin Temple in Kamakura, Japan, Sunday, Nov. 14.

Back from Asia, Obama weighs strategic partnerships, China's economic muscle

Obama's stops in India and Indonesia balanced security with economic pressures. But back-to-back global summits in Japan and South Korea underscored the administration’s weaker hand with China.

Like many sporting contests, President Obama’s just-concluded four-nation Asian tour was a game of two halves.

Stops in India and Indonesia were charm offensives that yielded goodwill, commercial deals, and progress on security cooperation. But the latter half of the trip – back-to-back global summits in Japan and South Korea – ran into strong economic headwinds that underscored the administration’s weaker hand in a region that’s increasingly bound to China, its largest economy. A stalled trade treaty in South Korea also proved a major disappointment.

Many observers noted that China was the "elephant in the room" on Obama’s tour, conspicuous by its absence from his schedule. While Obama was keen to push a broad agenda on his stops, there was a strong emphasis on security ties, which chimes with rising suspicions in the region over Chinese territorial claims in the South China Sea.

In Japan, which is sparring with China and Russia over niggling territorial disputes, Prime Minister Naoto Kan praised Obama for “constantly standing by Japan’s side.” In turn, Obama described the US-Japan alliance as a cornerstone of regional security. Analysts said Obama’s public show of support was intended to remind China that the US is still militarily engaged in Northeast Asia, despite its economic pains at home and a grueling fight in Afghanistan.

“There is no doubt that Obama had China in mind, that he wanted to send a signal that Japan is a very important ally, and that the US could use its position in Asia, through Japan, to counterbalance China,” says Koichi Nakano, a professor of political science at Sophia University in Tokyo.

Flattery and US intentions

Such a strategy was more circumspect in India and Indonesia, two potential counterweights on China’s southern flanks. Both countries were flattered by Obama’s keen attention to their economic clout and democratic credentials. But talk of strategic partnerships raised questions over the price of being seen as US outposts against a rising China.

Indian analysts say conservative defense officials, who jealously prize India’s neutrality, are suspicious of US intentions. US military aid to Pakistan, a hostile neighbor, is controversial, to say the least. This is why three defense pacts aimed at boosting interoperability between the two militaries went unsigned during Obama’s visit. But analysts say that doesn’t preclude a joint hedging strategy against future Chinese aggression, if it suits India.

“I don’t think the Americans have made up their minds if it’s containment” that’s needed for China, says C. Raja Mohan, a security analyst in Delhi. In the meantime, they are building up a relationship with India that “has a value in itself.”

India’s defense establishment will also be reassured by the promise of a strategic partnership with the US, though suspicions will die hard, says Ramesh Chopra, a retired Indian general. “Obama’s performance during the visit will make finalizing deals with the Indian military easier, but not necessarily quicker,” he says.

As in majority-Muslim Indonesia, where Obama’s visit was billed as a homecoming to a country where he lived as a boy, there were plenty of warm words in India. Obama pleased politicians of all stripes by praising two giants of Indian history, leftist B.R. Ambedkar and Hindu evangelist Swami Vivekananda. He also won applause by telling India’s parliament that he supported a permanent seat for India on the UN Security Council.

Indonesians responded similarly to Obama’s praise for its secular democracy. The trip saw the signing of a comprehensive partnership on educational exchanges, economic development, and countering climate change. Indonesia’s is the largest economy in the 10-nation Association of Southeast Asian Nations and is taking over its rotating chair.

But it was Obama’s personal ties to the country, rather than strategic interests, that wowed most people. “What brought people to applause [during a public speech] was not what he said about democracy and Islam, but the reminder that our countries have many similarities,” said Kurie Suditomo, the Jakarta-based Indonesian representative for the US-Indonesia Society.

The power of China's economic muscle

Still, China’s economic muscle was hard to miss on Obama’s tour. The day before he arrived in Jakarta, a visiting trade delegation from Beijing announced that total Chinese investments agreed this year had reached $6.6 billion. Japan and South Korea are increasingly drawn into China’s economic orbit by dint of its size and continued expansion.

Driving this point home, a Korea-US Free Trade Agreement that was completed in the waning months of the Bush presidency went unsigned during Obama’s visit. US special trade representative Ron Kirk said that US objections over market access for automakers couldn’t be resolved in time, a setback that surprised many South Korean observers.

“It’s a big disappointment we didn’t get the FTA,” said Jang Ha-sung, dean of business at Korea University. “Korea has done much for its own share.”

An inconclusive summit of G20 leaders, who failed to agree terms on dealing with global imbalances, added to the mood of disappointment in Seoul. Lee Chang-choon, a former South Korean ambassador, said the meeting lacked substance and argued that Obama had lost influence since the midterm elections. “He is counting down to his last days,” he says.

Even the positive tone struck in Tokyo was tempered by Japan’s domestic politics. Obama deliberately avoided mention of Futenma, the US Marine base on the southern island of Okinawa whose relocation caused a rift between the two countries earlier this year. Voters on Okinawa will elect a new governor later this month.

The worst-case scenario for both governments would be a defeat for the incumbent governor, Hirokazu Nakaima. His opponent is opposed to the relocation of Futenma to another part of the island. This could scupper Japan’s agreement with the US, since “it won’t work without the cooperation of the local government,” says Mr. Nakano.

Sara Schonhardt in Jakarta, Indonesia; Ben Arnoldy in Mumbai, India; Donald Kirk in Seoul,South Korea; and Justin McCurry in Tokyo contributed to this report.

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