Between April 23-25, 2014, President Obama visited Japan and South Korea, the US’ key allies in Northeast Asia. It was fair to say that the visits were uneventful; no big announcements and no groundbreaking policy speeches.
Usually, no news is good news. But not in this case. The uneventfulness is indicative of the challenges that the Obama administration faces not only in its “rebalance” policy to the Asia-Pacific region, but more broadly in its foreign policy. Bluntly put, it was indicative of how the Obama administration, perceived to be politically weakened at home and abroad, has been reactive, unable to proactively set the agenda in its management of US foreign policy.
Obama’s Asia trip was planned to reassure US commitment to its strategic rebalance towards the Asia-Pacific region. As National Security Advisor Susan Rice said in the press briefing on 18 April, the trip was intended to serve as “a chance for the United States to affirm our commitment to a rules-based order in the region.” Yet the trip was planned in the context of perpetual concerns expressed by US partners in the Asia-Pacific regarding perceptions of fleeing US commitment to its rebalance – especially after the departure of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and her close aid Kurt Campbell (Assistant Secretary of State for East Asia and Pacific), both of whom were considered the drivers of the rebalance. As such, the conceptual framework of the trip itself, a responsive attempt to reassure US allies and partners, was reactive. As the concerns voiced by countries in the region were based on China’s increasing assertiveness, in a larger context Obama’s Asia trip can be seen as the US reaction to unacceptable behaviour by China.
The trip came when the Obama administration, entering the second year of its second term, is quickly losing leverage in both domestic and foreign policies. The Washington Post’s latest opinion poll on April 29 indicated that President Obama’s approval rating has hit an all-time low at 41%. The Trade Promotion Authority (TPA)—critical for Obama in order to accelerate Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) negotiations—is unlikely to get approved by the US Congress at least until the November mid-term elections. Although many recognize the scant policy options available, the US response to Russia’s annexation of Crimea has been limited to economic sanctions, which reinforces the perception that Washington has lost its ability to lead.
If the success of Obama’s trip is defined by delivering the message that his counterparts in Asia wanted to hear from the US president, he was certainly successful. In Tokyo, Prime Minister Shinzō Abe got almost everything he wanted from Obama’s visit. It was the first state visit by a US president in 18 years. During his visit Obama defied the expectations of many, explicitly stating that the United States is committed to helping Japan defend the Senkaku Islands under Article Five of the bilateral security treaty. He even gave strong endorsement to Abe’s national security policy agenda, including the revision of Japan’s postwar ban on the right of collective self-defense and the relaxation of arms exports. Most importantly, by agreeing to meet Abe for a sushi and sake dinner on the night of his arrival, Obama even allowed his host to boast that he was successful in establishing close personal relationship with him.
In South Korea, as well, Mr. Obama’s expression of personal support came at a critical time when President Park and her administration is struggling to sustain public confidence in their government following the tragic accident of the sinking of the ferry boat Sewol. Obama reiterated the US’s firm commitment in defense of Seoul as growing signs suggest that Pyongyang may be poised to conduct another nuclear test. He also referred to the “comfort women”—a source of tension between Japan and South Korea over how to address the plight of Korean women forced to provide sexual services for the Imperial Japanese Army during World War II—when he described what occurred as a “terrible, egregious violation of human rights.” As Japanese and South Korean governments continue to disagree over how to appropriately address this issue, the statements by Obama have no doubt helped President Park.
However, Obama failed to articulate his vision for the US “rebalance” of the Asia-Pacific region. Because it was a multi-destination trip including stops in both Northeast and Southeast Asia, this trip would have been a perfect opportunity for Mr. Obama, as diplomat-in-chief, to rearticulate his vision of how his government would continue to implement its rebalance to the Asia-Pacific, describe the critical components, and explain how he would like to see the updated alliances and new partnerships play a facilitating role in the overall framework. Given concerns in the region for Washington’s intention in discussing “operationalizing new major power relations with China,” it would also have been an excellent opportunity to discuss his vision for US’s future relationship with China. Instead, much of the effort during his trip was devoted to tending the needs of the countries that he visited, on a bilateral basis.
In the Northeast Asian context in particular, Obama’s failure to share his vision for the future of East Asia and the role of the US-Japan-South Korea trilateral partnership will continue to make alliance management difficult. Although Japanese and South Korean leaders agreed to meet in atrilateral setting at the Hague to discuss North Korea, the two countries have a long way to bridge the gap that has emerged between them in the past 18 months. Without US public articulation of how Japan and Korea, while certainly managing the emotional issues of the past, must work with the US to focus on the security challenges ahead, the US will have to continue to tread carefully, balancing between its two allies. Obama’s endorsement of Mr. Abe’s national security policy agenda in Tokyo and his acknowledgment of the suffering of comfort women in Seoul is indicative of this continuous need for such a balancing act.
From a bilateral alliance management perspective, Obama’s visits to Japan and South Korea were certainly a success. However, his inability to lay out a convincing vision for the shared goal beyond addressing threats posed by North Korea that can bring Tokyo and Seoul together will continue to constrain the US’ ability to manage the two alliances.
This article originally appeared in Poltical Studies Association, on May 5, 2014.