In late April 2014, President Barack Obama paid his fifth official visit to Asia—a tour of four nations intended to reassure nervous allies of America’s commitment to them, to send signals to China that the United States was standing fast in its regional presence and commitments, and to provide tangible proof of Washington’s “pivot” (or “rebalancing”) policy towards the region. On all three scores, the trip must be considered a success. Obama himself described the purpose of the trip clearly on his final stop in Manila: “I’ve made clear throughout this trip that the United States is renewing our leadership in the Asia-Pacific, and our engagement is rooted in our alliances…. Here is, I think, the general takeaway from this trip: Our alliances in the Asia-Pacific have never been stronger. I can say that unequivocally. Our relationships with ASEAN countries in Southeast Asia have never been stronger. I don’t think that’s subject to dispute.” There are real reasons to share Obama’s optimism about the outcome of the trip. Much was accomplished—both substantively and symbolically. Yet, inevitably, the future will require constant further attention and efforts by Washington.
Consistent with the primary goal of reaffirming and strengthening alliances, Obama visited Japan, the Republic of Korea, and the Republic of the Philippines—three of the five Asia-Pacific nations with which the United States has shared decades-long security treaties and close relationships (Thailand and Australia are the other two). He also visited the Federation of Malaysia, the first American president to do so in half a century. While not allies, the United States and Malaysia have steadily enhanced their security cooperation in recent years, one of several non-allied security partnerships Washington has sought to build in the region. Visiting Malaysia also was a symbolic gesture of America’s broader engagement with the ten ASEAN nations (with which the United States exchanged USD 230 billion in goods and services trade in 2012). The United States has similar (non-allied) deep security links with Singapore and growing military ties with Vietnam.
Emphasizing alliance commitments and these other security relationships was recognition of the rising tensions in the region—all of which involve China. While Obama, and officials traveling with him, were ultra-careful in their choice of words about China throughout the trip so as not to antagonize Beijing; nonetheless China’s growing regional presence and its maritime territorial disputes in the East and South China Seas were the backdrop. Prior to departure, one journalist asked National Security Advisor Susan Rice if this was to be a “China containment tour” and at virtually every press conference along the way China was raised in media questions to Obama and his advisors. The president’s stock responses included the following phrases:
I include these quotes concerning China because it is the most Obama has publicly said about China during his entire presidency (including during his November 2009 visit to China). The messages he sought to convey were clear and consistent; he stayed “on message.” They were messages carefully crafted to reassure Beijing that American policy and presence in the Asia-Pacific were welcoming and not ill-disposed against it. At the same time, Obama was crystal clear that the United States would not tolerate any coercive measures taken by China (or any other nation) in the contested maritime disputes in the East and South China Seas, and he explicitly stated that the US-Japan and US-Philippines alliances applied to those nations’ maritime disputes with China, thus conveying a clear deterrent signal to Beijing. He said this specifically with respect to supporting Japan’s administrative control of the Senkaku Islands, but more generally with respect to the Philippines: “Through our treaty alliance, the United States has an ironclad commitment to defend you, your security and your independence” (Manila, April 28). If China’s government and military previously had any doubt that that they would potentially be fighting the United States military if the People’s Liberation Army took armed action to enforce its maritime claims, there should be no such illusion now.
The president paired such deterrent certainty with several statements that the United States takes no specific stand on the sovereignty disputes but strongly supports various methods to peacefully resolve the disputes. He also went further than the United States had previously been prepared to go by publicly endorsing international arbitration as the preferred means to address the disputes: “Today we have reaffirmed the importance of resolving territorial disputes in the region peacefully, without intimidation or coercion. And in that spirit, I told him [President Aquino] that the United States supports his decision to pursue international arbitration concerning territorial disputes in the South China Sea” (Manila, April 28).
To give greater credibility to allied commitments, enhanced defense cooperation was agreed with Japan, South Korea, and the Philippines. In Tokyo, it was announced that the US force posture in Japan—including, importantly, on Okinawa—would continue to be “realigned” and that this will include America’s “most advanced military capabilities.” In Seoul it was announced that the ROK would procure a variety of highly sophisticated new military equipment, including Global Hawk UAVs and F-35 fighters. A series of other steps would be taken to improve defense interoperability between US and South Korean forces. In Manila a new ten-year Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA) was signed, which will substantially upgrade US-Philippines defense cooperation and will provide American military forces with a significantly enhanced presence (on a rotational basis). This could likely include a renewed presence at Subic Bay—a mammoth naval facility from which the United States departed in 1992 following a vote by the Philippine Senate terminating the longstanding American presence. It is important to note that these are not American bases, but a rotational presence through Philippines facilities.
The fact that security and alliance arrangements were the centerpiece of Obama’s swing through the region was intended to provide substance to symbolism and to reassure those who doubt America’s resolve and continued commitments. Symbolically, there had been growing doubts in the region about the depth and durability of America’s security pacts—at a time of rising Chinese power (and in the wake of the Ukrainian crisis). Such doubts not only existed abroad but also at home in Washington, as a rising chorus in Congress have recently questioned Obama’s willingness to use force overseas. This critique popped up in Obama’s final press conference in Manila, in which he became quite animated, criticizing his critics and defending his record of being restrained instead of trigger-happy.
While alliance commitments and security arrangements captured most of the headlines during the trip, there was a secondary, yet important, emphasis placed on strengthening economic and people-to-people ties. American economic ties to the Asia-Pacific region are only growing deeper by the day. Bilateral FTAs and the prospect of the multinational TPP will bind the United States even more deeply together with partner economies in the region. Obama’s swing through the region was intended to advance these economic interests. TPP was the centerpiece, but, American and Japanese negotiators were unable to announce the much-anticipated bilateral TPP agreement during Obama’s visit to Tokyo. Market access in Japan—particularly in the automotive and agriculture sectors—was the sticking point. However, high-level negotiations have continued since Obama’s visit and an eventual agreement can be anticipated. Once the bilateral piece is in place the broader TPP puzzle will be much easier to conclude.
Trade was also on the agenda in South Korea and Malaysia. March 2014 was the second anniversary of the entry into force of the US-Korea FTA, and both sides praised the robustness of the commercial and technological relationship. Malaysian-US trade now amounts to USD 40 billion, making the United States the largest foreign investor in Malaysia’s economy.
Finally, people-to-people ties were celebrated and advanced at each stop in Obama’s trip. New youth, student, faculty, arts, music, cultural, and research partnerships were announced. As a symbol of these ties, Obama convened a lengthy and animated “town hall” session with young leaders from across the ASEAN region at the University of Malaya, speaking passionately about his own youth in Indonesia and feelings about the region and its future.
All in all, Obama’s April 2014 official visit to East Asia accomplished a considerable amount. The White House staff prepared the trip well and the president and his entourage received effusive receptions in each country. While the trip lent credence to the proclaimed reorientation of the United States to the Asia-Pacific, at a time when skepticism about the “pivot” was growing, it will take sustained efforts to constantly convince Asians that the United States remains deeply committed to the region.