Posted: 22 Apr 2014 10:20 PM PDT
Barack Obama is bound to disappoint on his forthcoming trip to Asia
A STRATEGIC "pivot" or "rebalancing" towards Asia and the Pacific is central to American foreign policy under Barack Obama. So it is more than embarrassing that the president has had to cancel trips to the region at short notice—most recently last October, when the partial shutdown of his administration forced him to pull out of two regional summits. This gives added significance to his tour of Japan, South Korea, Malaysia and the Philippines from April 22nd. It is the chance to reassert America's military and economic commitment to three treaty allies, one prospective "strategic partner" (Malaysia) and to the region as a whole, as it struggles with the implications of China's rapid rise.
That reassurance is needed all the more after America's failure to intervene in Syria and, especially, its failure to contain Russian expansionism in Ukraine. Both episodes feed into a perception of a declining American appetite for keeping the peace, and of a declining ability to do so. Countries such as Japan and the Philippines, facing an assertive Chinese approach to disputed territory, are naturally concerned. If America will do so little for Ukraine, will it risk lives and treasure for uninhabited rocks in the East or South China Sea? In theory, circumstances are so different that America's Asian allies should have no cause for concern. Unlike the Syrian opposition and Ukraine, the Japanese and Filipinos have mutual security treaties with America.
Indeed, if America did involve itself militarily in another conflict in the Middle East or in eastern Europe, its Asian allies would fret that the "rebalancing" was deemed, as they had feared, a lower American priority than other parts of the world. It is a battle for regional reassurance that America, it seems, simply cannot win.
Other problems complicate things further. One is the poor state of relations between America's two most important allies, Japan and South Korea. Shinzo Abe, Japan's prime minister, seems as unpopular in Seoul as he is in Beijing. His decision last December to visit the Yasukuni shrine in Tokyo, where war criminals are honoured, confirmed South Koreans in their view of him as an unrepentant historical revisionist, in denial about the atrocities Japan inflicted on their country during its colonisation. So, rather than co-operating with Japan in dealing with an immediate threat from North Korea and a potential longer-term one from China, South Korea prefers to make common cause with China to condemn Japan for its failure to confront the past. It took a big effort to persuade Park Geun-hye, South Korea's president, to join a trilateral meeting with Mr Obama and Mr Abe at a nuclear summit in the Netherlands last month. Coaxing them to work together when he is not in the room will be even harder.
Another difficulty lies in distinguishing strategic support for a country from political support for its current rulers. America finds much to admire in Mr Abe: his determination to drag the Japanese economy out of its deflationary morass; in particular, his promise to take on domestic lobbies by joining American-led regional trade talks, the 12-country Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP); his desire to see Japan play a bigger role in its own defence. But it also deplores the often revisionist attitude to Japan's history that, for Mr Abe and his supporters, animates these policies.
Similarly it finds Malaysia a model of moderate Islamic democracy and its prime minister, Najib Razak, the friendliest leader it has had in decades. But Malaysian politics is poisonous. Anwar Ibrahim, the leader of the opposition, which won the popular vote at last year's election, is appealing against a sentence handed down last month of five years in jail for sodomy. Many Malaysians believe the prosecution is politically motivated.
Mr Najib has taken Malaysia, too, into the TPP. Another problem facing the "rebalance" is that this, its most important economic dimension, is in trouble. The impetus of Mr Obama's tour itself may generate a breakthrough in the shape of agreement between the TPP's two biggest economies, America and Japan. But ratification of the TPP will face domestic political obstacles in a number of countries, not least America itself. Many in Asia have noticed that Mr Obama seems loth to spend much domestic political capital on this or other aspects of American commitment to the region. Mr Obama may have trouble convincing his friends in Asia that America's rebalance is genuine.
China, for its part, is keen to cast doubt on America's regional staying power. Yet, oddly, its own government seems convinced by it. It sees the rebalance as an attempt to encircle China and counter its rise. Some of this resentment emerged in testy exchanges when Chuck Hagel, America's defence secretary, was in Beijing this month. China blames America for encouraging Japan and the Philippines to confront it over disputed rocks. Its leaders worry that America's decision to deploy two more Aegis-class destroyers to Japan to counter the threat from North Korea is in fact directed against China. It has noticed that America supports the Philippines in its legal challenge to China's claim to most of the South China Sea, and has just signed an agreement with it allowing more of its troops into the country. And Congress is likely to authorise the sale of four pensioned-off frigates to Taiwan.
Be careful what you wish for
China's reaction is perhaps the most fundamental of all the factors making the rebalance so tricky. America insists it is not trying to contain China or thwart its rise. But if that is so, how to convince Asian allies of an unshakable military commitment to the defence of islands, reefs and rocks of no obvious relevance to American security? And if America is in fact trying to stand in the way of China's rise, then its Asian allies would also take fright at a dangerous confrontation between the region's two big maritime powers. The rebalance, meant to reassure them without alarming China, risks the opposite: alienating China and scotching promising areas of co-operation, yet leaving its neighbours, America's friends, more nervous than ever.
Posted: 22 Apr 2014 09:15 PM PDT
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