Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Obama reassures allies, but doubts over ‘pivot’ to Asia persist


APRIL 30, 2014

MANILA — From the elaborate details of a Japanese state visit to the more mundane question of how much face-time to give each of his Asian hosts, United States President Barack Obama’s aides spent months meticulously scripting his four-country tour of the region.

But, as the week-long trip wrapped up yesterday, it was clear that, while Mr Obama scored points with sceptical allies simply by showing up, not everything followed the White House plan.

Mr Obama’s clear aim was to demonstrate that his long-promised strategic “pivot” towards Asia and the Pacific, widely seen as aimed at countering China’s rising influence, was real. Early reviews were mixed.

“The key is what happens next,” said Mr Michael Kugelman, an Asia expert at the Wilson Center think-tank in Washington. “If the US starts dragging its feet, the sceptical whispers could begin anew.”

Japan, Mr Obama’s first stop on his first Asia trip of his second term, set the tone for a glass-half-full/glass-half-empty dynamic that characterised the trip. He was notably unable to announce a two-way trade deal with Japan, despite an informal “sushi summit” with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and last-ditch negotiations, raising questions over the momentum behind the broader Trans-Pacific Partnership trade pact.

Things went so badly the two sides had to delay issuing a summit-ending joint communique — normally a mere formality between close allies — until just before Mr Obama left.

More important from the Japanese perspective was Mr Obama’s assurance that Washington would come to Tokyo’s defence, including of tiny islands in the East China Sea that are also claimed by Beijing.

Mr Kunihiko Miyake, a former Japanese diplomat, said Mr Obama’s statement that the two nations’ mutual security treaty covers the disputed isles was “more than enough” for Tokyo.

The risk of Mr Obama’s rhetoric in Japan — as well as at other stops on his journey through Asia, where several allies face maritime disputes with China — was in antagonising Beijing and damaging US ties with the world’s second-biggest economy. Analysts mostly agreed that Mr Obama got the balance right by assuring America’s friends of US security assistance, while insisting that Washington was not trying to contain China.

Near the end of the trip, however, a Chinese official implied that America’s interest in the region could be fleeting, as even some allies fear, while Beijing’s engagement would be constant. “If you come or do not come, we will be here,” said Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Qin Gang.

Sceptics among America’s friends in Asia fear the faltering “pivot”, meant to refocus America’s attention on the dynamic economies of the Pacific Rim, could be undone by the competing pull of events in Europe and the Middle East. The crisis in Ukraine figured prominently in all four news conferences Mr Obama gave on his trip. While in Asia, he also rallied European leaders behind new sanctions against Russia.

But seeking to dispel any doubts, Mr Obama said in Manila on Monday: “Our alliances in the Asia-Pacific have never been stronger; I can say that unequivocally.”

In South Korea, Mr Obama offered poignant words of condolence over the scores killed in an April 16 ferry disaster and expressed solidarity over Seoul’s troubles with Pyongyang, but had no new ideas for curbing North Korea’s nuclear ambitions.

“The US cannot exert leadership in Asia only with words,” read the headline of an editorial in South Korea’s Chosun Ilbo newspaper. “The summit talks between Korea and the US were no more than symbolic,” the Hankook Ilbo newspaper said.

In Manila, Mr Obama hailed one of the few tangible achievements of the trip — the signing of a 10-year military pact with the Philippines that opens the way for US troops, planes and warships to have greater access to bases in the Philippines. However, the deal may be less than meets the eye. It is more of a legal framework, does not specify how many assets will be permitted on a “rotational basis” and requires decisions on deployments on a mission-by-mission basis, US officials said.

Despite that, Mr Obama appears to have won credit in South-east Asia, where he also visited Malaysia, for undertaking what was essentially a make-up for a visit he cancelled last October because of a government shutdown.

“This is a part of the world where showing up and giving high-level attention makes a difference,” a senior US official said.


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