21 February 2020
In his Asia trip, US President Barack Obama is confronted with the arduous job of cementing ties with allies in the region while seeking cooperation with a rising China. Photo: AFP
In his Asia trip, US President Barack Obama is confronted with the arduous job of cementing ties with allies in the region while seeking cooperation with a rising China. Photo: AFP

Obama back to the future in Asia trip

Amid a sea of doubts about his vow to “return to Asia”, dubbed as “rebalancing”, after he canceled a planned trip to the region last year, US President Barack Obama is finally back in Asia Wednesday. He is faced with the grueling task of finding a balance in the conflicting interests of major players in his four-nation trip. Starting with Japan, he will also visit South Korea, Malaysia and the Philippines.

Like his predecessors, Obama is confronted with the arduous job of cementing ties with allies in the region while seeking cooperation with a rising China. But unlike the previous administration, he perhaps is finding the task increasingly difficult in the light of China’s growing might and the increasing complexities and frictions in geopolitical and economic relations.

It is neither by chance nor convenience that Obama has picked Japan as the first stop of his Asian trip. Despite, or indeed because of, the rise of China, the strategic importance of Japan in the US strategy in the region has become more apparent.

It came after a series of top-level exchanges between Beijing and Washington in the past 12 months that saw Chinese President Xi Jinping spending a two-day get-together with Obama at Sunnylands, a desert resort in California, in June. More recently, US Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel was given a rare tour of China’s first aircraft carrier during a visit to China, the first of its kind accorded to a foreign government leader.

If there are concerns in Tokyo about the seemingly intimate ties between Beijing and Washington, Obama hopes to dispel fears that US-Japan ties will be compromised. The opposite is true. Obama will convince his Japanese host that Washington will be even more committed to further strengthening its long-time alliance with Japan.

In a move to bolster confidence in Washington’s commitment, Obama said in a pre-trip interview with Japanese daily Yomiuri Shimbun the US-Japan security treaty covered the disputed Diaoyu islands, called Senkakus by the Japanese. His remarks suggested the US would come to Japan’s defense if the islands were attacked. Obama’s written statement was the first time the president had conveyed that message.

But while doing so, Obama will be equally keen to send a no-nonsense reminder to Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe for him not to play with fire by provoking the anger of neighboring countries over the handling of its imperialist history.

Abe’s rightwing stance on Japan’s role in the Second World War has infuriated China and South Korea, and has helped pull the two nations closer and caused uncertainties in the US’ triangular relations with Tokyo and Seoul.

If anything, the high-profile visit by a group of 150 parliamentarians to pay tribute to the nation’s war dead at the Yasukuni Shrine on Tuesday and Abe’s offering to the shrine on the eve of the trip are a sharp reminder to Obama about the complexities of Japan’s militaristic past in America’s political game in Asia today.

That Abe has shown no sign of backing down on the Yasukuni issue means he is not prepared to appease his neighbors or please the US at the price of disappointing his supporters at home. To Abe, it is a game of political survival.

There is no doubt Obama looks set to even toughen his rhetoric for Abe to behave himself, not to needlessly provoke China and South Korea, during their talks. He will have to live with the reality it is imperative for Washington to reset a stable, solid relationship with Japan in the face of a more assertive China under Xi and an aggressive Russia under Vladimir Putin.

The Ukrainian crisis is likely to deepen the sense of urgency in the Obama administration for it to manage the near-impossible task of fostering cooperation with China on one hand and, on the other, strengthening ties with traditional allies in the region. Two of the countries on Obama’s itinerary, namely Japan and the Philippines, are locked in bitter territorial disputes with China.

Though troubled by the tough geopolitical challenge in the region, Obama will double his efforts to boost America’s economic interest, which is an integral part of his “rebalancing” strategy, by giving a further push to talks for the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP).

Press reports said talks with Japan over an agreement stalled due to disagreements over trade in automobile and farm products. Support for a trade pact with the US is also said to have waned in Malaysia. The deals are vital to the US drive to create a regional economy comprising 12 Pacific Rim countries – but not China.

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He was editor-at-large at the South China Morning Post and, more recently, deputy chief editor of the Hong Kong Economic Journal.