Four factors shaping President Obama’s visit to Asia

Obama's trip to Asia kicks off today. He'll be visiting until April 29. Here are four factors that will shape all his remarks and deliberations, as well as continuing relations between United States and Asia.

 

1. Pivoting toward Asia is a vintage Obama administration priority.

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton wrote an essay for Foreign Policy magazine in 2011 titled, "America's Pacific Century." The first sentence read, "As the war in Iraq winds down and America begins to withdraw its forces from Afghanistan, the United States stands at a pivot point." The last sentence of the essay also mentioned pivoting. Clinton's first trip as secretary of state was to Asia. That year Obama attended several meetings in Asia and said basically the same thing, although he never mentioned pivoting.

"Let there be no doubt: in the Asia-Pacific in the 21st century," Obama said, "the United States of America is all in."

All the news coverage, however, did mention pivoting. There was "The American Pivot to Asia." There was "Obama’s Asia Pivot Puts U.S. Approach to China on New Path." There was "Obama Ends Remarkable Summit Run With 'Pivot' to Asia." There was "America reaches a pivot point in Asia." Semantics aside, the pivoting made sense. Obama's presidential campaign was prefaced on escaping the wars in the Middle East. What better way to do that than with a shiny new foreign policy prerogative?

Obviously, other foreign policy concerns in Syria, Ukraine and the Middle East have complicated this vision -- as have fights with Congress. This week's trip was supposed to happen twice before. Both times Obama ended up canceling at the last minute, the most recent because of the government shutdown.

America's plans for an increased presence in Asia won't be as grand as originally envisioned in 2011, but the three intervening years have provided room for all parties to ruminate about what this long-planned pivot should mean. This trip likely won't result in any immediate changes, but Obama will likely dig down into what cooperating with Japan and the Philippines needs to mean in the 21st century, economically and security-wise. Clarification, in other words, not the hatching of brand-new plans.

For this trip, this renewed effort at pivoting will focus on two policies in particular -- finishing up the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a 12-country free-trade agreement that has been in the works for five years, and an agreement with the Philippines giving U.S. ships and planes more access to bases there than they've had since 1992. In 1991, the country asked the United States to leave Clark Air Base and the Subic Bay naval facility. The military isn't planning to establish a permanent base again; it is just instituting rotating deployments and stocking up supplies in case of a disaster -- a plan similar to one recently instituted with Australia.

Obama will also be talking to Japan about plans to revamp its military. International decisions made at the end of World War II have left Japan with a small military, but the country's new conservative prime minister, Shinzo Abe, has made revitalizing Japan's defense and armed forces a priority. The United States likely sees Japan's morphing role in the region -- and growing tensions between Japan and China -- as an important aspect of any changes to its role there. Obama's trip to Tokyo in 2009 was the first presidential trip to Japan since 1996.

The TPP negotiations are a bit more fraught, especially at home. Many Democrats are worried about the agreement, especially as the midterm elections draw near. Asia is also worried about how agricultural and vehicle industries will be affected by the treaty.

Obama's trip will take him to Japan, Malaysia -- the first president to visit this country since LBJ -- South Korea and the Philippines. Obama is also planning on revisiting the region to attend the two annual summits he missed last year.

Talking about the feasibility of pivots to Asia have been among one of Washington's favorite sports lately.

Former George W. Bush administration official Victor Cha, a senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said recently that during Obama's trip, "In polite company people won't say it, but behind closed doors I think they'll openly ask where the pivot is."

In March, a Pentagon official had to quickly backtrack after saying, “Right now, the pivot is being looked at again, because candidly it can’t happen, because of budgetary concerns. Gideon Rachman at the Financial Times wrote of the pivot, "The whole exercise risks looking like an inversion of Theodore Roosevelt’s famous advice to 'speak softly and carry a big stick.' The pivot has generated plenty of loud talk -- but the stick looks rather small."

Virginia Republican Rep. Randy Forbes told Politico, “The Asia-Pacific shift is going to happen. The question is whether we will be ready for it, whether we will be prepared for it. What was wrong was for them to cut all the resources out so they couldn’t actually make that pivot.”

Well, if the pivot in fact can't happen, no worries! The Obama administration is all about rebalancing in Asia now anyway -- as it always has been. Hillary Clinton created "the pivot." Obama has preferred rebalancing since the beginning.

2. China!

Hovering in the background of Obama's entire trip will be worries about China. As Andrew Kennedy, a professor of public policy at Australian National University, told The Washington Post earlier this week, "Whereas 10 years ago the U.S. was often seen as the more aggressive power, today it’s China that many are worried about. That has created opportunities for the U.S. to strengthen relationships with a range of countries in Asia.”

As Geoff Dyer wrote in Financial Times in February,

For the past 20 years China has been undergoing a rapid ­military build-up, and the navy has been given pride of place. More important, China has been investing in its navy in a very specific way. American strategists sometimes talk about a Chinese “anti-navy” -- a series of warships, silent submarines and precision missiles, some based on land, some at sea, which are specifically designed to keep an opposing navy as far away as possible from the mainland. The implication of the investment plan is that China is trying to prevent the U.S. Navy from operating in large areas of the western Pacific. According to Dennis Blair, the former Pacific commander who was head of the U.S. intelligence services early in the Obama administration: “Ninety per cent of their time is spent on thinking about new and interesting ways to sink our ships and shoot down our planes.”

China’s new navy is both an expression of power and a means to a diplomatic end. By weakening the U.S. naval presence in the western Pacific, China hopes gradually to undermine America’s alliances with other Asian countries, notably South Korea, the Philippines and maybe even Japan. If U.S. influence declines, China would be in a position to assume quietly a leadership position in Asia, giving it much greater sway over the rules and practices in the global economy. Through its navy, China hopes to reshape the balance of power in Asia. The naval competition in the western Pacific will set the tone for a large part of global politics in the coming decades.

The United States and China were trying friendly on for size for awhile, but Chinese cyberattacks and trade friction quickly, among other things, evaporated that development. However, the United States and China can't completely break ties either, given that trade between the two countries totals hundreds of billions of dollars. Rebalancing in Asia might be Obama's intention, but balancing existing relationship, however tenuous, will be crucial too.

All four countries Obama will be talking to this week will want to know how their relationship with the United States will help them vis a vis China. The United States will also want to know how their relationship with these countries will help them vis-a-vis the world's second biggest economic power.

Japan, in particular, will want to know how to end the game of "military chicken" it has been playing over islands that both countries would like to claim in the East China Sea. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel has chided China for trying to take control of the islands and has promised two ballistic missile defense destroyers to the country by 2017. The United States currently has about 38,000 troops in Japan. Some of the other countries Obama will be visiting were worried if the "red line," which later evaporated in Syria, would also prey on their security against China.

However, the United States doesn't want to make China too mad, either. As Foreign Policy magazine notes, "If China and the United States hope to avoid the growing rivalry that has too often accompanied the interaction between a dominant and rising power, this effort is needed. A judicious combination of strategic reassurance and resolve could save the U.S.-China relationship from the spiral of mistrust that characterizes the U.S.-Russia relationship today -- and protect against the even greater dangers that could result."

On the United States end of diplomatic talks, the Obama administration is likely most excited about the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which would give the country an economic advantage in the region where China has reigned supreme.

3. North Korea!

South Korea reported Tuesday that it thinks its northern neighbor might be planning a fourth nuclear weapons test, so there's one more thing to hang over Obama's trip. South Korea's military is on alert, and U.S. forces recently conducted military drills with South Korean troops. Jay Carney told members of the press on Air Force One yesterday, “We closely monitor actions such as that. North Korea has a history of taking provocative actions and we are always mindful of a possible action" that could be taken during this trip. However, the North Koreans could be bluffing, too. They've done it before.

The last nuclear test carried out by North Korea was in February 2013. From July 2011 to February 2012, U.S. officials held direct talks with North Korean officials regarding possible denuclearization. The last round of deliberations took place after the death of Kim Jong Il and ended with an agreement that was assumed to cut off the country's ability to conduct nuclear and missile tests. Less than three weeks later, North Korea was caught failing to launch a satellite. Since then, North Korea has flouted several U.N. Security Council Resolutions and successfully launched a rocket.

The United States has increasingly focused on improving relations with South Korea as a way of dealing with North Korea.

A North Korean official has told the press that the country is displeased by Obama's trip, calling it "reactionary and dangerous" and one that will "escalate confrontation and bring dark clouds of a nuclear arms race."

An Obama aide on Asia policy said of the potential tests, "Given the recent North Korean statements threatening new type of nuclear tests, new type of missile tests, it's clear that North Korea is not signaling any interest in what we would consider to be credible and authentic negotiations."

4. Russia!

Russia and China — which both have seats on the United Nations Security Council — are the two international players the United States is most worried about, Russia for its military and ancient stand-off with the United States, and China for its economy. The United States also only has so much energy it can expend abroad, pivot or not.

“If the U.S.-Russia relationship goes downhill, the Chinese will get a much easier ride,” said Minxin Pei, a Claremont McKenna College scholar interviewed by the New York Times. “The U.S. cannot afford to be tough on both Russia and China at the same time.”

Regardless of Obama's trip, China is likely relieved at how American foreign policy is being sapped to the West. Russian President Vladimir Putin is visiting China in May, and the two countries are finishing up decade-long talks about Russian oil and gas supplies — and China's hope to develop alternative energy projects in Crimea.

Jaime Fuller reports on national politics for "The Fix" and Post Politics. She worked previously as an associate editor at the American Prospect, a political magazine based in Washington, D.C.
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