US President Barack Obama’s Asia-Pacific legacy is now taking shape, but he has work to do to complete a genuine rebalancing of US power to the region that goes beyond rhetoric.
The US leader ended his four-nation Asian tour in the Philippines on Tuesday, after spending a week telling China not to use coercion in maritime disputes and reassuring allies that US security guarantees are genuine.
He made it clear that America’s defense alliance with Japan did cover disputed islands known as the Senkakus to Toyko and the Diaoyus to China.
He clinched a 10-year defense pact with the Philippines, similar to one already agreed with Australia, that will put US forces close to the volatile geopolitical currents of the West Philippine Sea (South China Sea).
Obama also became the first American president to visit Malaysia for nearly 50 years—formally ushering the country into the US orbit after its decades of outspoken anti-Americanism.
Malaysia’s evolution complements the administration’s move in pushing reform in Myanmar and drawing the once junta-led nation away from China.
Senior US officials said Obama privately pressed Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to consider the explosive regional political impact of visiting war shrines—particularly the impact on relations with US ally South Korea.
But despite administration claims that Obama engineered a significant breakthrough, he is yet to close a deal on opening Japan’s auto and agricultural markets.
That left a 12-nation Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade deal in limbo.
Obama needs the TPP to take the Asia pivot beyond a reshuffling of military assets and to claim a piece of the region’s dynamic future for the slowly recovering US economy.
Asian doubts over whether Obama can get any trade deal through Congress are also contributing to the uncertainty.
While his rebalancing strategy is premised in part on exploiting the anxiety of regional states about China’s rise, Obama also needs to keep tensions with the Asian giant under control.
While warning China over its conduct in territorial disputes in the East and South China Seas, which US officials privately fear could erupt into shooting incidents sooner if not later, Obama was careful not to antagonize Beijing.
In return, China kept its denunciations of the US-Philippines defense deal, which will see forces rotate through the country, comparatively muted.
The trip “was not a complete success,” said Joseph Cheng, a political scientist at the City University of Hong Kong.
“However . . . [Obama] demonstrated that he attaches a high priority to the region in line with his return-to-Asia strategy.”
Daniel Twining, an Asia analyst with the German Marshall Fund of the United States who worked on foreign policy for former president George W. Bush, said a number of Obama’s moves represented a “smart investment” for Washington.
But he warned: “Our big Asian allies remain worried.”
Twining said the absence of a trade deal with Japan and niggles in implementing the Korea-US trade pact “are setbacks and reflect the president’s unwillingness to sell the US global trade agenda to Democrats in Congress.”
To some extent, Obama may always find it difficult to fulfill hopes in the region for his Asia policy.
By having characteristically raised expectations by declaring himself America’s first “Pacific President,” he ensured regional states will always want more.
The fact that America is a Pacific nation but not an Asian one will always render Washington an outsider to some extent—and promote Chinese suspicions of US motives in its backyard.
So it was significant that Obama repeatedly made it clear that Washington did not seek to “contain” or “counter” China.
One clear deficit on Obama’s Asia legacy is his failure to produce new ideas to rein in unpredictable North Korea.
Though a feared nuclear test by Pyongyang did not materialize during his visit, Obama’s presidency will go down in history as a time when the Stalinist state increased its nuclear arsenal.
His next trip to Asia is scheduled for November, when he will travel to regional summits in Beijing, Myanmar and Australia.