When US President Barack Obama returns to Asia - Japan, South Korea, Malaysia and the Philippines - this week, he will find a continent different to the one he's left unattended since November 2012.
His historic visit to Myanmar back then won admiration, symbolising Washington’s astute rebalancing policy. It was the best move of the time as the region was looking to US assurance.
During the intervening 18 months, the regional and international world order, in which the US was the dominant player, has changed dramatically. Globally, the latest events in Ukraine are indicative that power backed by force speaks volumes and is gaining traction in the 21st Century world.
The vast Asian region could be the next test case – otherwise, Daniel R. Russel, Assistant Secretary of State for East Asia, would not have come out so bluntly with a warning to China not to attempt a Crimea-style use of force in Asia. Beijing was not pleased with Russel trying to link the situation in Ukraine with the disputes in the South China Sea.
Within the region, up north, South Korea-Japan relations have improved in the last week but still remain unfriendly. Instead of synergising common strategies among the region’s most important US Asian allies at this critical moment – due to their proximity to China and North Korea – the US has to mend fences among them instead of fearing a further undermining of its own security imperatives.
Over the one plus year, China’s diplomatic clout and status has augmented quickly. After the recent National Communist Party Congress, Chinese President Xi Jinping further consolidated his leadership domestically, also reflecting clearly on the overall external policies towards the broader Asian region – a direct challenge to the US rebalancing. During Obama’s absence from the region, Xi and Premier Li Keqiang travelled throughout it promoting a new regional order.
In response to the new strategic landscape, the US allies in the region – with the exception of Thailand – have already readjusted their policies to maximise Washington’s new approach.
Interestingly, more than the US would like to admit, the current regional shifts have more to do with a rising China and the new leadership’s assertiveness than the US’s new efforts – judging from the flurries of diplomatic activity during the year.
After World War II, the US took nearly four decades before linking the security of the Northeast and Southeast Asia regions as Washington initially worried this collective security would over time diminish the strong bilateral security alliance and overall influence. It was not until the first Clinton Administration that it was decided a common security approach by the US allies and friends was needed to ensure a long-term US presence and stability in the region. At that time, China’s rise was not the prominent theme – instead, whatever the rhetoric, it was the issue of engaging or rather containing China.
Throughout the 2000’s, ties among the region’s most powerful Asian economies –China, Japan and South Korea – were on good and manageable terms. The so-called plus-three group had been the engine of economic growth and accelerator of community-building in East Asia. Asean has been the biggest benefactor. Now, concerns are proliferating that disputes over its members’ territorial claims could have spillover effects on their long-standing non-strategic collaborative efforts, especially economic integration in East Asia.
For example, the two giant competing free trade frameworks, the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) and the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), will determine the region’s resiliency and future economic growth. Each economy has to respond to this challenge. Obviously, the present economic order and political alignment are not for fainted-hearted nations. Seven RCEP members are negotiating with the TPP.
Towards the south, the long-standing US ally, the Philippines, has successfully staged a comeback. Manila has done well so far in complimenting Washington’s rebalancing through integrating air and maritime defenses with the US strategic blueprints, citing its own lack of defense capability. During the Vietnam War, the Philippines had Thailand as a buddy backing up the American military might. Now, the Philippines is out there alone drawing up its own strategic defense framework.
Thailand, the oldest US ally in Asia, has been left out in the cold. The country’s continued political turmoil and uncertainties are partly to blame. Several new US initiatives with Thailand of late have been passed over to other non-US allied nations in the region, weakening the future of the Thai-US security alliance.
Under Obama, the US is giving special emphasis to its allies and, as it turns out, Washington has done it selectively. The recent US-Philippines upgrade of their bilateral security cooperation is a good indicator. Malaysia is not a US ally but its close ties with China have attracted the attention of US strategists. Obama’s visit to Malaysia – the first since 1966 – and more consolidated ties will increase the US bargaining position within the region.
During his 8-day trip to Asia, Obama’s every word and move will be scrutinised. Given the current global security environment, the US needs good relations with Asia at large more than before. To do that, Obama has to convince those leaders he is meeting and others who are closely watching him, that the US is unwaveringly committed to the region, even after he is long gone.