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Obama’s Asia Trip to Test Rebalancing Policy

April 23, 2014

Asia Foundation 60th anniversary seriesThis week President Obama travels to four Asian countries – Japan, South Korea, the Philippines, and Malaysia. In many respects, the president’s visit is to make up for his absence last October in Brunei and Indonesia to attend the East Asia Summit (EAS) and the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) leaders meeting because of the U.S. government shutdown. At the time, President Obama had no choice but to remain in Washington until the budget crisis was resolved. However, his absence cast serious doubt in Asia on whether the U.S. is able to serve as an effective counterbalance to China. This visit is meant to allay concerns in Asia that the Obama administration’s “pivot” or “rebalancing” policy is more rhetoric than substance.

Since the EAS and APEC meetings, the Obama administration has had to contend with the crisis in Syria, the annexation of Crimea by Russia, Iran’s nuclear program, and peace efforts between the Israelis and Palestinians. The U.S. response to the crisis in the Ukraine is being watched closely in Asia, particularly by Japan whose tensions with China run high over disputed territorial claims in the East China Sea. The U.S.-Japan alliance is the most important in Asia, and the U.S. has stated repeatedly that it is committed to Japan’s defense. While the U.S. takes no position on the disputant claim, it does acknowledge Japan’s right to administer the Senkaku islands (called the Daiyou islands by China). However, with a slowdown in military spending, there are Japanese concerns whether the U.S. would come to their defense in the event China attempted to annex the disputed islands. The Philippines, also a U.S. treaty ally, shares similar concerns over its disputed claims with China in the South China Sea and has filed a petition asking the United Nations’ International Tribunal on the Law of the Seas to rule on whether China’s “9 dashed lines,” can negate the Philippines 200-mile exclusive economic zone (EEZ).

President Obama will also have to try to ease tensions between Japan and South Korea, another treaty ally. Relations between Japan and South Korea have become severely strained over differing views of how World War II should be remembered and memorialized in Japan. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, a staunch nationalist, has consistently downplayed Japan’s wartime abuses. A few days ago, Prime Minister Abe sent a ceremonial offering to the Yasukuni Shrine in which honors Japan’s war dead, including convicted war criminals from World War II, which can complicate relations further. Until last month, South Korean President Park Geun-hye refused to meet Prime Minister Abe over these differences. It took President Obama to bring both leaders together around the Nuclear Security Summit in The Hague. Such tension between the two most important treaty allies in Asia only hinders the U.S.’s rebalancing efforts and ability to engage more constructively in the region.

President Obama will also visit Malaysia, the first American president to visit since Lyndon Johnson in 1966. Although political and economic relations between both nations over the years have largely been constructive, relations at the leaders’ level have at times been prickly, especially under Prime Minister Mahathir Mohammad (1981-2003). However, relations today between the U.S. and Malaysia may be the best ever under Prime Minister Najib Tun Razak, a former defense minister, who views improved relations as being integral to Malaysia’s security and economic prosperity. The U.S. views Malaysia as a moderately Islamic, economically successful nation that other Islamic countries might wish to emulate. But there are indeed concerns about Malaysia’s domestic politics – flawed elections in 2013 that barely kept Prime Minister Najib in office, a crackdown on government opponents, including opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim who has been sentenced to five years in prison for sodomy, and serious concerns about Malaysia’s governance highlighted recently by Malaysia’s response to the vanished airplane six weeks ago. The U.S. has cooperated and has been supportive in the search for MH-370 both in the South China Sea and Indian Ocean. Nonetheless, ignoring human rights issues would send a disturbing signal to the rest of Asia that human rights is not an issue of concern for the United States. President Obama should discuss these concerns in the context of the totality of improved relations, but stress that more needs to be done in ensuring political freedom and human rights in Malaysia.

The last leg of President Obama’s trip is to the Philippines. Over the past five years, defense cooperation between the U.S. and the Philippines has grown close. Next week, it is anticipated that President Obama and Philippine President Benigno Aquino III will sign an agreement for bilateral security cooperation that will expand the U.S.’s military rotational presence in the Philippines. The U.S. lent great assistance to the Philippines when it was hit by Super Typhoon Haiyan in November 2013, where more than 6,200 people perished, 30,000 were injured, and four million people displaced. The U.S. enjoys a high approval rating by the Philippine people (about 80 percent) and economically the U.S. is one of the Philippines top trading partners and largest foreign investors.

But there is considerable criticism and concern that the Obama administration’s rebalancing exercise has been “over-securitized,” with not enough emphasis on how economic engagement will be as important as security if the rebalancing effort is to be successful. While in Asia, President Obama will promote the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) agreement, a pact that would encompass 12 nations and 40 percent of the world’s gross domestic product. Japan and Malaysia are part of the TPP while the Philippines has recently entered discussions on how it might be able to join. South Korea is only one of two Asian nations (the other being Singapore) that has a free trade agreement (FTA) with the United States. But the U.S. and Japan, the world’s first and third largest economies, respectively, are still fairly far apart in how to treat the agricultural and automobile sectors. How much political capital is the Obama administration willing to spend on assuring a successful passage of the TPP when he did not receive fast track authority approval for the TPP by Congress? In a bi-partisan poll taken in January, 62 percent of likely American voters oppose President Obama’s being given fast track authority versus 28 percent in favor of it. Such polls will not be ignored, either by Democrats or Republicans, in an election year, making it unlikely that a vote to ratify the TPP not be taken up in either the House of Senate. The U.S. not ratifying the TPP will likely make Asian leaders even more suspect of the U.S.’s rebalancing policy.

But there is much more to security in Asia than just increased military spending, territorial disputes, the threat of the nuclear proliferation, and maritime security. Many security challenges, particularly in Southeast Asia, are non-traditional. It has been said that Southeast Asia’s number one threat is an environment where natural disasters such as typhoons, earthquakes, and flooding occur with some regularity. It is these times where U.S. assistance after natural calamities has been critical in providing humanitarian assistance and disaster relief. How the United States can work with both Asian governments and civil society in helping to develop their abilities to respond effectively in a coordinated fashion can strengthen both regional cooperation as well as the U.S.’s relations with the Asia-Pacific.

It is important for President Obama to reassure leaders this week that the Asia-Pacific region remains integral to the U.S.’s geo-political calculus and economic interests. Many in Asia (as well as elsewhere in the world) believe the U.S. is in decline. With China’s rise, U.S. power will not be dominant. Asian nations do not want to see the United States as a sole superpower, but neither do Asian nations want China or any other nation to be a super-power. The U.S. can be most effective if it is an enduring power in Asia, whose policies are consistent, not episodic. This should allow the U.S. to wield its power and influence more effectively.

John J. Brandon is director of Regional Cooperation Programs for The Asia Foundation, based in Washington, D.C. He can be reached at john.brandon@asiafoundation.org. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the individual author and not necessarily those of The Asia Foundation.

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