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14 May 2014, Gateway House

Obama in Asia: a reassuring visit?

In the wake of an ambitious and aggressive China, American President Barack Obama’s recent visits to various Asian countries were meant to assure allies old and new. At the same time, he trod a fine line, ensuring that he does not displease Beijing. And that may embolden China

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Eager to dispel growing uncertainties over the U.S.’s commitment to Asia, President Obama embarked on a historic “reassurance” trip to East Asia, where he met leaders from long-time regional allies Japan, South Korea, and the Philippines, as well as a budding strategic partner in Malaysia.

In many ways, Obama’s visit to Asia was long overdue. Last October, his no-show at the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summits set off alarm bells across Asia, with countries such as Singapore openly questioning Washington’s wherewithal and commitment to remain as an anchor of geopolitical stability in the region. With the U.S. administration then focused on resolving a vicious budget deadlock in the Congress, Obama’s much-awaited visits to the Philippines and Malaysia were also cancelled.

Meanwhile, Chinese leaders, President Xi Jinging and Premiere Li Keqiang, swiftly took the spotlight and embarked on a high-profile charm offensive across Southeast Asia, promising multi-billion-dollar trade and investment projects to capital-poor ASEAN countries.

This year, however, the U.S. president is making up for lost time. During the Northeast Asian wing of his trip, Obama painstakingly sought to encourage Japan and South Korea to resolve their territorial disputes and put aside their long-time spats over Japan’s militarist history. Emphasising emerging threats from North Korea and China, Obama underlined the necessity of maximum strategic cooperation in the trilateral Japan-U.S.-South Korea alliance.

Encouraging the Abe administration to revise its nationalistic posturing and reach out to its neighbours, Obama  unequivocally stated Washington’s commitment to come to the rescue of Tokyo if a war were to erupt over the disputed Senkaku / Diaoyu islands in the East China Sea, which has been ferociously contested by China in recent years.

Encouraged by categorical American military support, the Abe administration is now in a stronger negotiating position to reciprocate Beijing’s calibrated de-escalation in the East China Sea, by launching a new diplomatic approach.

Firmly standing behind Japan, Obama re-asserted American regional leadership — and added credibility to the U.S.’ pivot to Asia  policy — by facilitating a potential thaw in Japan-China relations.

According to Japanese authorities, since October China has scaled down its para-military patrols to the Senkaku / Diaoyu islands. To re-open communication channels, China also dispatched an informal Chinese envoy, led by Hu Deping, who happens to be a close friend of President Xi Jinping, to Tokyo. Hu reportedly met top Japanese officials, including Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.

Last December, when Shinzo Abe visited the Yasukuni Shrine, which houses several Class-A war criminals, the streets of Beijing were relatively quiet. This is in clear contrast to 2012, when nation-wide anti-Japanese protests across China led to a significant deterioration in bilateral ties and economic linkages, forcing a moderate government in Tokyo, under the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ), to correspondingly harden its stance.

In Malaysia, Obama was able to capitalise on his host’s growing territorial anxieties in the South China Sea, specifically over Beijing’s ever-expanding patrols and military exercises in the contested areas. Wary of China’s assertive territorial posturing, Malaysia sought to diversify its foreign relations by signing a “comprehensive [strategic] partnership” with the U.S.

The highlight of Obama’s Asia tour, however, was his much-anticipated visit to the Philippines, Washington’s oldest ally in the region, which coincided with the signing of a new bilateral security pact, the Enhanced Defence Cooperation Agreement (EDCA).

Under the agreement, the U.S. military is expected to gain (rotational) access to up to five Philippine bases, namely Clark airfield, Subic Bay, Poro Point, Camp Aguinaldo and Fort Magsaysay. The EDCA builds on existing Philippine-U.S. military cooperation schemes by enhancing U.S. military assistance to and interoperability with the Philippine armed forces, both in the realm of traditional as well as non-traditional security issues.

The EDCA represented Obama’s prime achievement during his recent Asia trip, adding much-needed momentum to his “Pivot to Asia” policy. The Philippine government, in turn, hailed the EDCA as the concrete reflection of a burgeoning bilateral security alliance with Washington. But critics called attention to the marginal advantages provided by the new defence agreement, since it does not cover the ongoing territorial disputes between the Philippines and China.

Obama himself was quick to point out that the EDCA was not aimed at Beijing, since it is primarily designed to enhance the Philippines’ ability to deal with humanitarian and domestic security challenges. Obama made it clear that Washington was not taking any position on the sovereignty of disputed territories in the South China Sea, and is primarily concerned with freedom of navigation in international waters.

Most importantly, Obama refused to offer categorical military support to the Philippines if a war were to erupt in the South China Sea. He encouraged the Philippines to seek a rule-based, diplomatic compromise with China, since, Obama argued, “it’s inevitable that China is going to be a dominant power in the [Asia] region’’.

Overall, it is clear that the Obama administration seeks to avoid direct confrontation with China over the South China Sea disputes, while enhancing Washington’s strategic footprint in Asia. The EDCA represents a huge operational gain for Washington, as it strengthens the ability of the U.S. forces to respond to crises in the South China Sea in a more timely and decisive manner. The EDCA provides Washington long-term, inexpensive access to Philippine bases, enabling Washington to prevent any major threat to freedom of navigation in international waters, which is central to the global dominance of the U.S. Navy.

On the economic front, however, Obama wasn’t able to achieve anything concrete. Negotiations over the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) deal, a centrepiece of Obama’s pivot strategy, have largely stumbled, with Asian partners such as Japan and Malaysia displaying growing resistance to the potential impact of the proposed free trading agreement on domestic agricultural and healthcare sectors.

The deadlock in the TPP negotiations undermines the economic dimension of the U.S.’s pivot policy, leaving the Obama administration with minimal achievement to show on the trade and investment front.

Meanwhile, in the absence of firm American support for Philippine claims in the South China Sea, Beijing has been encouraged to up the ante and test Washington’s strategic resolve, as exemplified by its recent decision to dispatch HYSY981, a $1 billion deep-water oil drilling rig, to Vietnam’s hydrocarbon-rich Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ), risking an armed confrontation with Vietnam.

Richard Javad Heydarian is a political science and international affairs lecturer at Ateneo De Manila University, and a policy advisor at the Philippine Congress.

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