Barack Obama goes to Asia

in Program

On his recent trip to Asia, President Obama had some very broad objectives. He wanted to tie U.S. policy in Northeast Asia and Southeast Asia more closely together. And he wanted to engage the region on a global agenda.

But beyond following Woody Allen’s sage advice—80% of success is showing up, he focused primarily on a two-pronged agenda.  On the one hand he sought to reaffirm the U.S. commitment to its rebalancing strategy, reassuring allies about American treaty commitments and making progress on the strategy’s economic centerpiece, the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). On the other hand, he wanted to convey a message to China that Washington was concerned, but was not pursuing a policy of containment.  

While only time will reveal the full measure of his success, it appears that Mr. Obama achieved pretty much all of these objectives. He clearly strengthened political and security ties with Japan, South Korea and the Philippines, and he made major strides in consolidating the warming trend with Malaysia on this first visit there by an American President in almost half a century.

The snap judgment of much of the U.S. and Japanese press that the absence of an announcement of a TPP “agreement” meant that the negotiation with Tokyo had failed appears to have been premature at best. Keeping in mind that both leaders still need to sell their domestic political and economic constituencies on the results they achieved, both sides firmly believe that they “broke the back” of the market access problem, opening the door to relatively smooth resolution of other issues both bilaterally and with the other ten TPP partners. 

The question of successfully messaging China was at least equally as important as consolidating ties with allies and partners. The goal was to be unambiguous with Beijing about American determination to counter intimidation and use of force, but to avoid conveying any intention of encirclement. As the President said more than once, rebalancing isn’t all about China and it isn’t about containing China.

At the same time, it would be absurd to suggest that rebalancing has nothing to do with China. Without question the PRC’s behavior has been a focus of concern, with a significant security dimension.

A Focus on US Security Policy in East Asia

In Tokyo, the President personally provided “absolute” reassurance that Article V of the U.S.-Japan Mutual Security Treaty means what it says: the U.S. security commitment applies to all areas under Japanese administrative control, including the Senkaku islands (known in China as the Diaoyu islands).  And in the context of supporting Japan’s more effective participation in the alliance, the President also made clear that the United States would welcome it if the Japanese government and people decided to exercise the right of collective self-defense.

No one doubted these positions would be unwelcome in China. But Mr. Obama made other statements that Beijing should have welcomed, even if its public reactions predictably focused on PRC sovereignty claims and warnings about China’s determination to protect every inch of Chinese territory.

First, the President’s implicitly recognized that there is a dispute over the islands, a position Tokyo rejects. Speaking of the Senkakus, he called for “disputes in the region, including maritime issues, to be resolved peacefully through dialogue.”

Second, he made clear that his emphasis on resolving the issue peacefully and avoiding provocation was aimed not only at China but also at Japan. “As I’ve said directly to the Prime Minister…it would be a profound mistake to continue to see escalation around this issue rather than dialogue and confidence-building measures between Japan and China.”

Third, he went out of his way at several points on his trip to speak positively about U.S. policy toward China. “We welcome China’s peaceful rise.  We have a constructive relationship with China…our goal is not to counter China.  Our goal is not to contain China…Our message to China consistently on a whole range of issues is we want to be a partner with you in upholding international law. “ 

But if the President made an effort to highlight the positive side of his agenda with China, he also conveyed a message of concern about China’s behavior. He did so in his press conference with Prime Minister Abe: 

[W]hat we’ve also emphasized—and I will continue to emphasize throughout this trip—is that all of us have responsibilities to help maintain basic rules of the road and an international order so that large countries, small countries, all have to abide by what is considered just and fair, and that we are resolving disputes in peaceful fashion. 

And this is a message that I’ve delivered directly to the Chinese… 

In the Philippines, the President was clear about the importance of refreshing U.S. alliances in order to stabilize the security situation in the region—and about the implications for China:

As I’ve made clear throughout this trip, the United States is renewing our leadership in the Asia Pacific, and our engagement is rooted in our alliances…And given its strategic location, the Philippines is a vital partner on issues such as maritime security and freedom of navigation…

We’ll work together to build the Philippines’ defense capabilities and to work with other nations to promote regional stability, such as in the South China Sea. ..Today we have reaffirmed the importance of resolving territorial disputes in the region peacefully, without intimidation or coercion…

My hope is, is that at some point we’re going to be able to work cooperatively with China as well, because our goal here is simply to make sure that everybody is operating in a peaceful, responsible fashion…but we don’t go around sending ships and threatening folks. 

Speaking to Philippine and American forces he said:

Let me be absolutely clear.  For more than 60 years, the United States and the Philippines have been bound by a mutual defense treaty.  And this treaty means our two nations pledge—and I’m quoting—our “common determination to defend themselves against external armed attacks, so that no potential aggressor could be under the illusion that either of them stands alone.” 

Though perhaps less pointedly, the same theme was reflected in Mr. Obama’s remarks in Malaysia, where a new “Comprehensive Partnership” was announced:  

Our Comprehensive Partnership will expand our security cooperation…We very much agree with ASEAN’s view and Malaysia’s view that disputes need to be resolved peacefully, without intimidation or coercion, and that all nations must abide by international rules and international norms.

China’s Reaction

China’s reaction, especially to the remarks in Tokyo, was initially condemnatory. Following the President’s remarks on Article V, the foreign ministry spokesman said:

China’s position on the issue of the Diaoyu Islands is clear, firm and consistent. China firmly opposes the inclusion of the Diaoyu Islands into the US-Japan security treaty…

I want to add that the so-called [sic!] US-Japan security treaty is the product of the Cold War era. It should not be cited to target a third party, let alone to undermine China’s territorial sovereignty. No matter what others may say or do, the solid fact that the Diaoyu Islands are integral parts of China’s territory cannot be changed, nor will our government’s and people’s determination and resolve to safeguard territorial sovereignty and maritime rights and interests be shaken.

Still, even during the trip, many PRC commentators published articles in the official media highlighting the fact that the President had gone to some lengths to emphasize his positive attitude toward China and the fact that he was not pursuing containment.

Moreover, toward the end of the President’s trip, the foreign ministry spokesman was far more reserved than he had been a few days earlier, confining his remarks to the hope that the U.S. and “relevant countries in the region” could base their actions on the trend toward “peace, development and win-win cooperation” and make positive efforts to ensure regional peace, stability and prosperity. He also brushed aside questions as to whether China’s absence from the itinerary indicated the trip was to “counter” China: “We will tell based on what the US says and does.”


Overall, then, despite some negative press, the fact is that President Obama achieved virtually all of his objectives. American concern about assertive Chinese behavior should not be underestimated, nor should Washington’s determination to meet it head on if necessary. But it would be a strategic mistake to think that this means Mr. Obama either devalues the critical significance of U.S.-PRC relations or is less committed than before to developing as constructive, cooperative and comprehensive a relationship with China as possible.

But how possible that is will depend in very significant measure on how well Beijing understands the opportunities presented by the President’s approach and how positively it responds.


Photo credit: Official White House Photo by Chuck Kennedy

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