Too busy reassuring regional allies of support against aggressive China, the president ignored the wider picture of US ties with the region
President Barack Obama left Asia a week ago following a four-country tour to a region the US claims is now its No 1 geostrategic priority. The trip was evenly divided between Northeast Asia (Japan and South Korea) and Southeast Asia (Malaysia and the Philippines). With the exception of a new 10-year bilateral defence cooperation deal with the Philippines, the visits were uneventful. The attention within the United States for the Asia trip was also comparatively low. While Obama was in Asia, the crisis in Ukraine continued to dominate international news.
The uneventfulness and lack of attention within the United States is indicative of the challenges that the Obama administration has not only in its “rebalance” to the Asia-Pacific region, but more broadly in its foreign policy. Simply put, it was indicative of how the Obama administration, perceived to be politically weakened at home and abroad, has been reactive and may be limited in its capacity to lead.
Obama’s trip was planned to reassure US commitment to strategic rebalance toward the Asia-Pacific. The tour was intended for the United States “to affirm our commitment to a rules-based order in the region”, said National Security Advisor Susan Rice on April 18. Indeed, it is fair to say that the trip was planned as a direct response to the concerns expressed by Asia Pacific countries that US strategic attention was fleeing from their region. When Hillary Clinton and her close aide Kurt Campbell both left government at the end of the Obama administration’s first term, Asians felt that they lost their champions for US rebalance to Asia. More than a year into Obama’s second term, their concerns have not been alleviated. In November last year, National Security Advisor Rice’s Asia policy speech left many in Asia questioning what she meant when she discussed the United States launching “a new model of major power relations” with China. Obama’s trip was supposed to ease these concerns, reassuring his administration’s commitment to the Asia “pivot”.
However, it came at a time when the Obama White House is quickly losing its leverage both at home and abroad as it enters its second term’s second year. Domestically, the latest Washington Post opinion poll, released last Tuesday, indicates that President Obama’s approval rating has hit an all-time low of 41 per cent. Trade Promotion Authority (TPA) – which Obama needs US Congress to grant him in order to conclude the TPP negotiations – is unlikely to get approved at least until the November mid-term elections. On the foreign policy front, although many recognise there may be few good policy options, the US response to Syria’s alleged use of chemical weapons and last month’s Russian annexation of Crimea have reinforced the perception that Washington has lost its ability to lead in crafting a response to international crisis.
If the success of the trip is defined as Obama showing up in Asia, meeting his counterparts to deliver the message they needed to hear from the US, it worked. In Japan, Abe got almost everything he wanted from Obama’s visit – making it a state visit, explicit statement in regards to the applicability of Article 5 of the US-Japan Treaty of Mutual Cooperation and Security to the Senkaku Islands, and strong endorsement of Abe’s national security policy agenda. Obama even allowed his host to boast that he and Obama were successful in establishing a close personal relationship.
In South Korea, as well, Obama’s expression of personal support came at a critical time when President Park and her administration struggle to sustain public confidence in their government following the tragedy over the sinking of the ferry boat Sewol. He also reiterated the United States’ firm commitment in defence of Seoul as growing signs suggest that Pyongyang may be poised to conduct another nuclear test. His reference to the “comfort women” – a source of tension between Japan and South Korea over the disagreement on how to address the plight of Korean women who were forced into providing sexual services to the Imperial Japanese Army during the war – as a “terrible, egregious violation of human rights”, also no doubt helped President Park.
The visit to Malaysia was considered the trickiest leg of Obama’s Asia tour. The sitting government led by Prime Minister Najib has been criticised for its oppression of political opposition under its authoritarian rule. The Najib government has also come under intense criticism in recent months for the seeming incompetence of his government’s response to the disappearance of Malaysian Airlines Flight 370. Here, Obama attempted to strike a careful balance. On the one hand, he celebrated a positive relationship between his administration and the Najib government. On the other, he spoke about the need for the Malaysian government to improve its record on human rights, media freedom and civil liberty, and met with social activists during his stay. Although he did not meet the opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim, National Security Advisor Rice met him on Obama’s behalf.
The Philippines – the final stop on Obama’s Asian trip – was where he made the biggest news. He and President Aquino signed the Enhanced Defence Cooperation Agreement. Under this 10-year agreement, the US military will maintain a rotational presence in the Philippines and help the Philippines to build its defence capability. In the joint press conference, Obama hailed “a new chapter” in the US-Philippines relationship, and discussed the country’s strategic importance as a “vital partner” in areas such as maritime security and freedom of navigation.
However, during his trip, Obama failed to articulate his vision for US “rebalance” to Asia-Pacific. Because it was a multi-destination trip that included stops in both Northeast and Southeast Asia, it would have been a perfect opportunity for Obama, as the diplomat-in-chief, to re-articulate his vision of how his government will continue to implement rebalance to the Asia-Pacific. He could have elaborated on what he thinks the critical components of US “rebalance” are, and how the alliance modernisation, fostering new partnerships in the region, and the timely conclusion of TPP would fit into his vision. He also could have discussed how, in the context of his priority on rebalance, his government will envision forging the relationship with China. Instead, he largely focused on the bilateral issues at every stop of his visit.
Obama’s failure to share his vision for the Asia-Pacific region would pose a challenge to Japan. For instance, Japan’s effort to reach out to South Korea to shift the focus of discussion to the problem of today will remain difficult in the absence of US articulation of the strategic importance of US-Japan-South Korea cooperation not only in North Korea but other regional security issues. Reaffirmation of the application of Article 5 of the Security Treaty and endorsement of Abe’s security policy agenda by Obama are definitely positive outcomes of Obama’s visit for Japan, but it has little concrete policy impact in the short run. Above all, the United States, with Obama’s weakening political standing at home, will continue to be reactive in its conduct of foreign policy, remaining preoccupied by the crisis of the day. If the United States needs a strong Japan for its Asia policy, Japan, whether it likes it or not, needs a strong US even more.
Yuki Tatsumi is a senior associate at the Stimson Centre, a security think-tank in Washington.