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Obama’s Visit to Asia: an Assessment

During his six-day Asian tour to Asia-Pacific region, his sixth as US President, US President Barack Obama visited first Japan on 23 April 2014 on the first leg that also took him to South Korea on 25th, Malaysia on 26th and the Philippines on 28th, before departing for Washington on 29th. As a state guest in Japan, Obama held a summit meeting with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe on 24th and had an audience with Emperor Akihito and Empress Michiko. The visit underscores Obama administration’s continued focus on the world’s largest emerging region. Obama had visited Japan twice since becoming President in 2009, but this was his first since March 2011.

While in South Korea, Obama met with President Park Geun-hye and discussed such issues as North Korea’s nuclear threat and implementation of a bilateral free trade pact. His visits to Malaysia and the Philippines came after he canceled a trip to the two Southeast Asian countries — as well as Indonesia and Brunei — planned for 1-16 October 2013 to deal with a partial government shutdown over budget issues at home.

Why does the US put so much importance to Asia? Apart from the security and strategic considerations, the US believes that over the next five years, nearly half of all growth outside the US is expected to come from Asia. The US also has several important allies such as Japan, South Korea and the Philippines, besides developing democracies and emerging powers and therefore sees the US’ top priorities as tied to Asia, for reasons of accessing new markets, promoting exports, protecting its own security interests and promoting core values. No wonder, Japan, South Korea, Malaysia and the Philippines intersect with the US administration’s priorities, which include modernizing alliances, supporting democratic development, advancing the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), and commercial ties, investing in regional institutions such as the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, or ASEAN, and deepening cultural and people-to-people exchanges.

Obama’s trip was also to convey the message to the American allies in the region that the US is committed to stand by with its allies and partners to defend from threats and respond to disasters with humanitarian assistance when needed. The trip was also meant to reaffirm the US commitment to peaceful resolution to maritime and territorial disputes consistent with international law. The US is endowed with significant and unique capabilities and technical expertise, which it has deployed to address human sufferings from tragedies in the past. It has lent prompt and effective support to its friends and partners in Asia in times of distress such as during the earthquake in Japan in March 2011, the 2013 typhoon in the Philippines, the Malaysian Air flight 370 tragedy, and latest being the ferry disaster in South Korea in April 2014 that killed many innocent school children.

Obama’s Asia trip is also important in another way. America’s Asian allies and partners were concerned that US foreign policy interests remained largely focused on the Middle East – the Syrian conflict, pursuit of Israeli-Palestinian peace, Iranian nuclear talks and the drawdown from Afghanistan, and more recently the crisis in Ukraine. But Beijing was not naïve to overlook that US is also 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. No wonder, Beijing watched Obama’s visit closely and lost no time to react sharply when Senkaku was mentioned as a part of Japanese territory, which comes under Article 5 of the Japan-US Security Treaty. Beijing did not hesitate to warn Hagel against interfering in the territorial issues with its neighbours and may repeat the same when Obama visits China in the fall.

Does it mean that Obama finds himself on a tightrope, balancing between meeting expectations of America’s allies in the region while avoiding words that might raise Chinese suspicions about US motives? Obama’s task seemed arduous in the sense that he had to find way to explain his priorities, how he wants to strengthen ties with the allies, but also cooperate with China. Michael Green, who was senior director for Asian 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 worries 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” and therefore the slightest emphasis on one side of the balance can set off alarms on the other. The mention of the Senkaku in the Joint statement could be the starting point, it is feared.

Besides East Asia where the US has two allies in Japan and South Korea, Southeast Asia has also emerged as another cornerstone of the US administration’s strategy because of the region’s rapid economic growth and political clout. In fact, Obama’s visit to Malaysia was indeed historic as no other American president visited the country since Lyndon Baines Johnson’s visit in 1966. While in Malaysia, Obama highlighted the Southeast Asia giant’s economic and democratic progress. Obama also found 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. Indeed, Obama “celebrated” Malaysia’s impressive post-World War II economic development, besides highlighting its diversity.

Malaysia is too involved in sovereignty disputes with China over the South China Sea. Yet, China has been careful in not to indulge in conflict escalation with Malaysia. As it transpired, Obama’s visit to Kuala Lumpur had more diplomatic and economic significance than anything else as it came after a gap of nearly five decades since Johnson’s visit in 1966.

Obama had the easiest time while at the Philippines because it is here 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. The capacity-building of Philippines’ naval strength has therefore shown incremental growth. As was expected, Obama received a very warm welcome from the Filipinos because of the substantial US disaster assistance after typhoon Haiyan struck a swath of central Philippines in November 2013. Even where there remained some doubts about the “pivot” and America’s staying power in Asia, Obama’s presence in the region itself helped remove such anxiety.

Since the Philippines has toughened stance against China on the ownership of islands in the Spratly’s in the South China Sea and rebuffed Chinese brinkmanship, and also has taken the dispute to the UN Arbitration Council, this offers a major strategic challenge for the US. Obama has admitted that if China adopts any aggression against Philippines’ claim in the South China Sea, Philippines will be assured of US military assistance. It is because of the changed situation, the Philippines have shown willingness to host US military presence at the famous Subic Bay Naval base and other bases in the country.

Regional Security Issues

The visit took place at a time when tensions have heightened over territorial disputes between US allies as well as China’s expansionist behavior. While Japan and China are locked in territorial spat over Senkaku/Daioyu islands, Japan and South Korea are claiming the Takeshima/Dokdo island chains in the East China Sea. The shadow of history also continues to affect Japan’s relations with China and South Korea. Though Abe regularly visited Yasukuni in the past, his visit to the Shrine on 26 December 2013 marking the first anniversary of his second term as Prime Minister, infuriated South Korea and China, worsening ties already chilled with them over territorial and history issues. Even the US expressed “disappointment” over the visit. The Comfort Women issue continues to remain as an irritant between Japan and South Korea as well. The relations between Japan and South Korea have deteriorated to such an extent that no summit meeting could be held between the leaders of both the countries. The US can ill afford to have two of its important allies in Asia are at loggerheads and therefore brokered a meeting at The Hague in March during the third Nuclear Security Summit meeting. Even that has not helped much. South Korea was not initially listed in Obama’s itinerary but had to be added lest South Korea would have felt left out from America’s Asia strategy.

Though there is no rationale why China and South Korea should feel so touchy on Japanese political leaders’ visit to Yasukuni, these two countries are unable to come to terms with history. Unless the past is buried and treated as an aberration in history, the future is going to remain frosty. Does the present generation need to be reminded of all what their predecessors did or how they behaved in the situation that existed at that time of history? At the same time, why cannot the Japanese political leaders avoid visiting the controversial shrine since Japan’s neighbours draw different meanings from such symbolic visits? It so transpired that much against the expectations that Abe shall pay another visit to the Yasukuni to make offering during the spring festival on 21-23 April just prior to Obama’s visit, Abe demonstrated his immense political maturity by avoiding a visit again, though many of his minister colleagues and lawmakers visited to pay their respect to the war dead enshrined at Yasukuni. It also defies logic why not much noise was made in China and South Korea when Junichiro Koizumi visited repeatedly the Yasukuni when he was the prime minister than Abe’s single visit has made.

Instead, this time Abe sent a religious offering to Yasukuni marking the April 21-23 spring festival. The offering was a pair of “masakaki”, traditional Shinto-style decorations of tree branches and other ornaments, along with a wooden plate carrying his name and title. Yasukuni enshrines 2.5 million war dead including 14 Class A war criminals from World War II. The shrine has been a flashpoint between Japan and neighbuors China and both Koreas, who see Yasukuni as a symbol of Japan’s past militarism and repeated visits by Japanese leaders as a lack of remorse over wartime history, as well as sign of revival of Japanese militarism. Conservative politicians who visit the shrine argue they are only making a pacifist pledge by praying for those who died in the war.

Therefore, Obama’s trip was the ideal opportunity to affirm US commitment to a rules-based order in the region at a time of ongoing regional tensions, particularly with regard to North Korea and regional territorial disputes. The Obama administration recognises that there is a significant demand for US leadership in the region, and therefore calibrated his strategy of rebalancing to Asia that also includes economic, political, security and cultural interests in Northeast and Southeast Asia. The network of alliances and partnerships that are already in place forms the foundation of US strategy in Asia. For the US to modernise these alliances to make them more relevant to the 21st century and to security challenges, and binding them into platforms for cooperation on regional and global challenges are priorities for the Asia-Pacific.

Keeping in mind Japan’s territorial fiercest dispute with China, Abe is said to have observed in the wake of happenings in Ukraine that using force to change the status quo is not acceptable. During his visit to the region in early April 2014 and prior to Obama’s visit, Defence Secretary Chuck Hagel took a tougher line on the territorial issue and warned China against the use of military force, lest the US shall be obligated to intervene in accordance with Article 5 of the Japan-US Security Treaty. Earlier the US had not taken sides on the question of which countries should control which islands but the joint statement cleared that confusion. There are concerns that China could be emboldened by the relative ease with which Russia annexed the Crimean Peninsula from Ukraine over US objection. The US decision to pull back on plans for a military strike against Syria despite security pledges raises questions on Obama’s ability to keep up his words. If Beijing would read the joint statement from this perspective, the tensions would remain where it was before Obama’s visit.

The Russian incursions into Ukraine could also be exposing China’s vulnerability, in the sense that Beijing might view with concern Kremlin’s attempts to sway pro-Russian populations in areas of Ukraine, given China’s own restive minority populations in border regions. The US dissuaded Beijing from supporting Russia’s move in Ukraine by appealing not to intervene in another country’s domestic affairs. Beijing might have been persuaded to accept such an argument but unlikely to do so in the case of South and East China Sea. The relative restraint that Beijing has exercised so far in its territorial ambitions should be read in the light of the air defense zone that it declared in November 2013 over large part of the East China Sea, including the disputed islands controlled by Japan and a maritime rock claimed by both China and South Korea. China’s coast guard also has blocked Filipino ships in the South China Sea in recent times. China claims virtually the entire South China Sea. Nansha is the Chinese name for the Spratlys, a chain of resource-rich islands, islets and reefs claimed partly or wholly by China, the Philippines, Malaysia and other Southeast Asian nations. Roilo Golez, former national security advisor of the Philippines believes that Beijing would avoid Russian-style moves on any of the disputed territories, in large part because China is surrounded by American allies from the East China Sea to the Strait of Malacca and may have to deal with the US military in the region if it undertakes a major act of aggression. Golez observes: “It would be a folly on the part of China to do anything drastic, to do a Crimea”. Yet, it is difficult to predict what China’s future behaviour could be.

North Korea’s nuclear issue

North Korea’s nuclear program is the single biggest headache for the leaders in Japan, South Korea, China and the US. Obama has been urging both Japan and South Korea to work together as part of wider efforts to persuade North Korea to abandon its nuclear weapons program, amid reports that Pyongyang may be preparing to conduct its fourth nuclear test. For the past several decades, North Korea has engaged in provocative actions. It is already the most isolated country in the world and is subjected to sanctions and condemnation.

Converting North Korea into a normal country with normal behaviour has to start with denuclearisation. During the visit, Obama made it categorical that North Korea’s nuclear and ballistic missile programs are unacceptable. Recognising the reclusive country’s repeated missile launches and nuclear development program as a threat to Japan, South Korea and the US, Obama reaffirmed America’s commitment to the security of the two allies. Some regional analysts feared that the attention-craving leadership in Pyongyang would decide to launch some kind of provocative act during Obama’s visit. Such an ugly situation fortunately did not happen. Yet, the world must be ready for more surprises, not knowing when they shall come.


Lately, the US has expressed displeasure on some of Abe’s nationalistic agenda, notwithstanding his “sushi diplomacy”. Though this would please Beijing, Chinese reactions to some of Abe’s recent actions would not change Washington’s Japan policy. Washington continues to vouchsafe China’s “continued peaceful rise”. Yet, Beijing watches carefully see Washington chiding Tokyo when necessary despite the public show of solidarity. When Abe visited Yasukuni, a controversial shrine in Tokyo that honours Japan’s war dead, on 26 December 2013 despite US advice against it, Washington expressed “disappointment”. Abe also caused unease in China and South Korea when he indicated revising official apologies (the famous Kono statement of 1993) over Japan’s wartime conduct, including its use of tens of thousands of mainly Korean women as sex slaves in frontline brothels. Washington is clearly not happy with Abe’s conduct of dealing with Japan’s neighbours this way.

Japan’s relations with South Korea have deteriorated after the new leaderships took office in both the countries. Though more than a year has passed, there has been no summit meeting between Abe and Park. Despite best efforts to get Abe and Park to share the same dais at The Hague in March, thereby breaking the ice, mutual distrusts continue. Now that Obama has given assurance that Japan sought over the Senkaku Islands, the least that he would expect from Abe that he at least starts mending fences with the other ally in the region, South Korea. Obama is also worried that South Korea is leaning more towards China and drifting away from Japan. That is not a good sign for the American rebalancing strategy in Asia. It is not clear if Obama will be willing again, after The Hague, to actively and officially intervene between Japan and Korea in order to reconcile their relationships.

Obama’s Asia trip fitted a pattern of frequent presidential visits to the region dating back to decades. Asia is a region torn by fractious issues and the US is the only country to assist the countries to forge common unity around common values. Unlike Europe and Latin America which have succeeded in creating regional unity and ensure peace and prosperity, Asia still remains divided by deep rivalry, territorial tensions and unresolved war histories. It is therefore Asia has always welcomed US help and the US has willingly embraced this task; Obama is no exception.

What has then been Obama’s report card in Asia so far in the past five years? He has worked out with China a new model of great-power relations to accommodate China’s rise on the world scene. He succeeded in arranging a trilateral meeting with Abe and Park at The Hague, thereby breaking the ice between the two Asian leaders who were not even on talking terms. He successfully nudged Myanmar towards democracy. He has taken the position and tried to sell the proposal to the Asian countries that the South China Sea issue be resolved peacefully and multilaterally. And he has begun to “rebalance” US resources towards Asia and away from Europe and the Middle East.

But his failure is equally glaring. He left Tokyo empty-handed and failed to clinch the deal on the Trans-Pacific Partnership, through which he expected to accelerate economic cooperation within Asia and hoped to mellow, if not dissolve, political divisions. It is too early to assess if Obama succeeded in shoring up US support to the four countries he visited without giving the impression in China that it was being encircled by US allies. The Christian Science Monitor observed in its editorial on 22 April 2014: “Beijing’s strategic interests are based largely on pursuing its national interests rather than accommodating neighbours in shared goals. It largely rejects the notion of ‘universal values’, even banning its controlled press from using phrases such as ‘constitutional democracy’ or ‘independent judiciary’. This makes it difficult for China to accept US intentions toward as a benign, or even helpful.”

Though China has fostered economic cooperation by entering into trade pacts with Asian countries, thereby developed strong economic interdependence, it often acts as a bully. It also conducts joint military and naval exercises. Though its economic rise is largely because of its heavy reliance on the openness of foreign markets, it feels uncomfortable if the US and other countries guard the sea lanes of communication for smooth maritime commerce, which it often sees as a challenge to its naval capability. China finds it unease to conduct its relations with a large number of Asian democracies as it does not know how to appreciate their strength because its own single party alone defines its identity and also knows how to perpetuate in power. North Korea is another cruel example. It is indeed a challenge and a test for China to show true leadership role, if it really aspires to be a real Asian power, to accommodate the concerns of its fellow Asian countries and must stand for common principles. If China can demonstrate such quality that would indeed be the real defining moment for Asia in the 21st century.

(The writter,Dr. Rajaram Panda is currently The Japan Foundation Fellow at Reitaku University, China, JAPAN. E-mail:

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