Obama’s Asia trip: Assurance is the key

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In late April, President Obama visits Japan, South Korea, the Philippines and Malaysia. He should make this trip an “assurance tour,” focusing on convincing Asian allies and partners of his administration’s unwavering commitment to peace and stability in the Asia-Pacific region.

Rightly or not, U.S. allies and partners in the Asia-Pacific region have seen the U.S.’s “rebalance to Asia” as a lost cause under the second Obama administration. Worse, following supposedly weak U.S. reactions toward Syria and Crimea, many countries in the region now question the U.S.’s capacity to enforce the rebalance. The U.S. government’s uncoordinated response to the Chinese announcement of an Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) was an illustration of the Obama administration’s drift from the rebalance, raising questions about whether the U.S. is indeed willing to stand by its allies and partners in the face of increasingly assertive behavior by China.

Obama should use his upcoming trip to Asia to dispel such doubts about U.S. leadership in the region. Of course, he needs to tailor the message. His message in his first two stops in northeast Asia should focus on the strategic significance of U.S. bilateral alliances with Japan and South Korea to his overall Asia strategy. By succeeding in holding the U.S.-Japan-South Korea trilateral summit in The Hague on March 25, Obama has created room to focus his upcoming visits to Tokyo and Seoul on shared security challenges, rather than trying to mend the diplomatic rift between Japan and South Korea. Moreover, the Nodong missile launch by North Korea as Obama and his Japanese and Korean counterparts met is a stark reminder of the pressing security concern posed by Pyongyang. Obama needs to articulate the importance of robust U.S. alliances in northeast Asia to deter North Korea. His upcoming visits to Tokyo and Seoul should also serve as occasions in which he articulates the U.S.’s vision for using alliances with Japan and South Korea to implement the rebalance to Asia strategy. 
In his stops in Southeast Asia, Obama should focus on articulating the U.S.’s commitment to allies and partners in Southeast Asia in their efforts to peacefully resolve the South China Sea dispute according to the international law. In particular, Obama must make it absolutely clear that the U.S. will regard any attempt to unilaterally change the status quo by force ‚Äî regardless of whether it is military or paramilitary ‚Äî as unacceptable, and that such an action will come with tangible consequences. This is particularly important as the region nervously watches U.S. diplomatic efforts to roll back the Russian annexation of Crimea and deter Moscow’s further attempts to use military force to enter other formerly Soviet countries.

The countries in the Asia-Pacific region have not heard Obama speak about the rebalance since his speech in Canberra, Australia in 2011. While concrete policy measures must follow in order to put substance behind the rhetoric, the re-articulation of Obama’s personal commitment in, as well as his vision for, the rebalance in the Asia-Pacific region and the U.S.’s enduring leadership in the region is certainly a good start.

This article originally appeared in The Hill, April 2, 2014. 

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