Obama’s Visit to Asia and U.S. Alliances

As foreign trips go, President Barack Obama’s visit to Asia in April 2014 was more important than most.  It was originally scheduled to coincide with the APEC summit in October 2013, but domestic problems prevented him from travelling at that time.  But even then, such a trip was needed.  Many in Asia already had become concerned over his administration’s commitment to its strategic “pivot” or “rebalancing” towards the region.  Both its economic and security legs had come to little.  Despite the administration’s goal to complete the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) free trade talks in 2013, they were nowhere near a final agreement (and still are far from one).  Meanwhile, doubts emerged about the seriousness of the U.S. military rebalance.  A major part of that rebalance hinged on the U.S. Navy’s shift from a force that was equally balanced between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans to one that would be tilted, 60 percent, toward the Pacific.  But given that the administration’s concurrent efforts would reduce the overall size of the U.S. Navy, many wondered whether its tilt would provide any boost to U.S. capabilities in the region.  And, more broadly, the United States still seemed more willing to engage itself in places like Libya and Syria, than in the East or South China Seas.

During the intervening six months, tensions in Asia have climbed even higher: from China’s declaration of an air defense identification zone over the East China Sea (November 2013) and its quasi-maritime blockade of the Philippine-held Second Thomas Shoal (March 2014) to Japan’s decision to build a new radar base on Yonaguni Island (April 2014) to North Korea’s artillery barrages and missile tests (March and April 2014).  Layered on top of all that has been the Ukraine crisis, in which the Obama administration has allowed Russia to violate Ukrainian sovereignty without any serious repercussions.  That itself follows Obama’s failure to act in 2013 after Syria crossed his “red line” on the use of chemical weapons.  Little wonder that such worrisome events have made U.S. allies in Asia nervous.

Such was the backdrop for Obama’s visit to Asia over the last week.  Without a doubt, his main objective was to reassure U.S. allies in the region.  Obama visited all three U.S. security treaty partners during his trip: Japan, South Korea, and the Philippines.

In Japan, Obama plainly stated that the U.S.-Japan Security Treaty would cover all territories administered by Japan.  That means the Senkaku Islands (or Diaoyu Islands in China) in the East China Sea would be defended, since they are administered by Japan (though his later reply to a press question as to whether his statement represented a “red line” in the East China Sea slightly muddied its impact).  Still, it was the first time that an American president directly addressed the issue.  That must have heartened Japanese Prime Minister Shinzō Abe.  And though there was no breakthrough in the bilateral TPP negotiations between Japan and the United States during Obama’s stay, some incremental progress was made in the days afterwards.

Obama then touched down in South Korea, where he warned Pyongyang against further military provocations.  Already this year, North Korea fired artillery into and short-range ballistic missiles over South Korean waters.  Now, there is the prospect of a North Korean nuclear test.  And so, Obama sought to do more warning.  He also worked to coax Japan and South Korea into overcoming their historical animosities.  Given that both countries and the United States must deal with the threat from North Korea (and perhaps China in the future), the administration hoped that America’s two security treaty allies could find a way to work together, rather than against each other.  Lastly, Obama’s presence in Seoul helped South Korean President Park Geun-hye demonstrate the strength of the U.S.-South Korean alliance to the Korean National Assembly.  That was important, since it soon will consider a major increase in its financial support of U.S. forces in South Korea, as part of a larger agreement reached seven years earlier in which wartime operational control of combined U.S.-South Korean forces would transition from an American general to a South Korean one.

Finally, just before Obama’s arrival in Manila, American and Philippine representatives signed a ten-year accord called the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement.  Under negotiation for much of the last two years, that agreement was originally dubbed the Increased Rotational Presence Framework Agreement, largely because that was its intent: to enable U.S. forces to more regularly rotate through the Philippines in order to conduct joint exercises with the Philippine armed forces.  The final agreement also allows the United States to keep the equipment that it uses for those exercises at Philippine military bases.  The frequency of those exercises could be increased to the point at which there would be a near-continuous American military presence in the Philippines.  That would represent a meaningful change in U.S. force posture in the region and send a strong signal of American commitment to the Philippines.  The successful conclusion of the agreement was a victory for Philippine President Benigno Aquino III, who faced domestic opposition to it.  The agreement offers the Philippines some breathing space to rebuild its own external defense forces and pursue greater security cooperation with its Southeast Asian neighbors.

While in Southeast Asia, Obama also began to build new economic and security bridges to Malaysia, which had developed somewhat cozier relations with China than the United States since the 1990s.  Hence, it was notable that Obama and Prime Minister Najib Razak elevated their countries’ relationship to one of a “comprehensive partnership.”  (That matched the status which Malaysia conferred on China a year earlier.)  But little more was accomplished for the time being, due to popular resistance in Malaysia to the American-led TPP.

Upon Obama’s return to the United States, he can rightly claim that American allies in the region feel more reassured.  But American reassurances will ultimately need to be matched with American deeds.  Sadly, Obama’s reticence to persuade members of his own party to grant him “fast track” authority to streamline the TPP’s ratification process belies to some degree his own words of commitment.  An even bigger question is whether his words will impress China or North Korea.  No doubt, his words will be tested.  Questions about American commitments to its Asian allies were not fashioned overnight, nor will they be dispelled with a presidential visit.