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Obama Walks Tightrope in Asia Visit

1 May 2014

President Obama performed a difficult balancing act during his four nation trip to Asia including Japan, Korea, Malaysia and the Philippines. On the one hand he had to demonstrate that Washington’s commitment to their defence remained one hundred percent whilst on the other hand not seeking to antagonise China. Beijing was not on the itinerary this time but the President will visit Beijing in the autumn. The President explained the main purpose of his trip was to demonstrate that ‘the US was renewing our leadership in the Asia.’ Obama made little progress, however, on the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) which remains blocked by Japan’s refusal to allow greater market access on agriculture while Obama does not have (fast track) trade promotion authority. Obama’s trip also coincided with the aftermath of the tragic ferry accident in Korea and the missing plane from Malaysia.

Japan

This was Obama’s third visit to Japan and he paved the way for a successful visit by stating in an interview before he arrived that the disputed Diaoyu/Senkaku islands fall under the US-Japan defence treaty. This was not a change in the status quo as the US retains its neutral position on sovereignty but it was a Japanese aim to have the US position clarified at the highest level. There was an inevitable negative response from Beijing. Obama also praised Japan’s efforts to improve its defence capabilities which he hoped would enable it to play a bigger role in peace-keeping operations. The US-Japan alliance, he said, was the foundation ‘for not only our security in the Asia Pacific region but also for the region as a whole.’ The other major topic of the visit was the TPP but despite frenetic last-minute negotiations there was no breakthrough. Obama said that he had been very clear and honest that American manufacturers and farmers needed to have meaningful access to TPP markets including Japan. ‘That's my bottom line, and I can't accept anything less.’ Indeed on his return to Washington, Obama’s agriculture secretary, Tom Vilsack, suggested dropping Japan from the TPP negotiations because of its failure to open its market. Mike Froman, the USTR, remans confident, however, that a deal will be reached.

South Korea

Obama discussed bilateral relations with President Park and visited US troops based in Korea. The main focus was on the situation in the DPRK with both leaders urging Pyongyang to give up its nuclear programme and concentrate on economic issues. Obama endorsed Park's Dresden speech on reconciliation and reunification, stating that ‘it was a vision of a unified Korea where people throughout this peninsula enjoy the political and economic freedoms that exist here in the South.’ Obama chided Seoul for not fully implementing the US-Korea FTA but won praise for his condemnation of the use of comfort women during world war two. Park seemed to indicate that Abe now understood the depth of Korean concern about attempts to rewrite history and gave grounds for hope about an improvement in relations between Seoul and Tokyo, a long-standing US aim. Obama said he believed Abe recognized that the past is something that has to be faced honestly and fairly. But he added that it was in the interest of both Japan and the Korean people to look forward as well as backwards.

Malaysia

The Obama visit to Malaysia was supposed to highlight cooperation in counter-terrorism even though there was some American criticism of Malaysia’s human rights record. But the continuing search for Malaysia Airlines flight 370 was a sorry background to the visit. The two sides managed a joint statement covering economic cooperation and, for the first time, a willingness of the Malaysian government to accept the principle of international arbitration in the South China Sea, a move that was started by the Philippines.

Obama did not meet opposition leader Ibrahim Anwar but Susan Rice, his national security advisor, did. She told Anwar that Washington had followed his case closely, and that the decision to prosecute him as well as the trial decision had raised a number of concerns regarding the rule of law and the independence of the courts.

Philippines

During his stop in Manila, Obama and President Aquino announced an enhanced defence cooperation agreement that would facilitate the enhanced rotational presence of US forces; and provide for closer cooperation on training as well as humanitarian assistance and disaster relief. Obama also supported the Philippines decision to pursue international arbitration concerning territorial disputes in the South China Sea. His Philippine hosts were slightly aggrieved that, unlike with regard to Japan, there was no US public commitment to defend their disputed islands with China.

Asked about China role in the region, Obama said that ‘our goal is not to counter or contain China but to make sure that international rules and norms are respected.’ Obama also said that China's participation in pushing the DPRK in a different direction was critically important. ‘They have not only an opportunity but I think a security interest and a broader interest in a peaceful resolution to what has been a generation-long conflict and is the most destabilizing, dangerous situation in all of the Asia Pacific region.’

Assessment

Much of the pre-visit spin from the Asian side was whether the US was still willing to maintain its defence commitments in the region. The US side, in contrast, was seeking to open markets through the TPP. It would seem the Asian side came away happier from the visit with Obama reiterating the US security commitments whilst failing to prise open the TPP door. There must be a feeling of ungratefulness in Washington now. For decades the US Seventh Fleet has been patrolling the Pacific and ready to defend Japan and South Korea (although these countries have no obligation to defend America!). As one US official mused, maybe we should now ask the Asians what they are prepared to do for America.