Apr. 20. (EPA/Yonhap News)
By Park Hyun, Washington correspondent
US President Barack Obama is renewing his “rebalancing Asia” policy approach, embarking on a four-country tour of the continent on Apr. 23. But he could face an uphill battle with an increasingly thorny situation in Northeast Asia, including frictions between Seoul and Tokyo and objections from Beijing.
The four countries on Obama’s itinerary include three allies - South Korea, Japan, and the Philippines - and strategic partner Malaysia. It’s the same schedule that he was forced to abort last October after a US government shutdown. The aim is to reaffirm Asia’s central role in US foreign policy. The new addition of South Korea to the itinerary appears to be an attempt to bridge the current rift between Seoul and Tokyo.
Speaking before the Australian Parliament in Nov. 2011, Obama formally declared that Asia would be central to US foreign policy. “The United States has been, and always will be, a Pacific nation,” he announced at the time.
But two and a half years later, not only allies but even Washington insiders are taking a dim view of the approach.
The “rebalancing” policy arose out of a sense that the US’s future interests hinged on Asia, the fastest-growing region in the world. The real trigger, though, was China stepping up its military strength and ratcheting up its claims to territories in the East and South China Seas early on in the Obama administration.
Perhaps as a consequence, the focus of the policy to date has been set squarely on the military. The US Department of Defense is currently carrying out a plan for the stationing of 2,500 Marines in Australia, while beefing up mechanized units in South Korea. Plans are also in place to deploy two destroyers with ballistic missile defense capabilities in Japan, and four littoral combat ships in Singapore. Military partnerships with Vietnam, Malaysia, and the Philippines have been stepped up.
Meanwhile, efforts on the diplomatic and economic fronts have been lacking. A US Senate Foreign Relations Committee assessment of the policy on Apr. 17 noted that Asia accounts for 31% of the global economy, but that the US State Department allocates just 8% of its budget to its presiding Bureau of East Asian and Pacific Affairs - a number that has actually dropped from 12% in 2011.
Noting that the “strategy intends to strengthen U.S. economic, diplomatic, and security engagement throughout the region,” the report observes that only the military policies have been implemented to date.
“The strategy is currently perceived as primarily a military strategy,” it continues. “As a result, some countries in the region see the rebalance as an attempt to contain a rising China.”
Meanwhile, South Korea and China’s strong objections to the historical revisionism and military push of the Shinzo Abe administration in Japan - one of the US’s chief policy partners - are seen by Washington as having left the battle lines in disarray. Frictions between traditional allies South Korea and Japan threaten to weaken the three-way security partnership, while China has continued to flex its muscles in the region by declaring an Air Defense Identification Zone in the East China Sea late last year. The situation on the ground is conflicting with Washington’s policy goals.
So far, the Obama administration has had little opportunity to focus its attention on Asia. In addition to basic federal budget constraints, it has also been confronted with various urgent situations to resolve in the Middle East and Europe, including nuclear talks with Iran, the civil war in Syria, and the situation unfolding in Ukraine.
In diplomatic and security terms, the focus of Obama’s visit is on stronger alliances with South Korea, Japan, and the Philippines; in economic terms, it is looking to make progress with the Trans-Pacific Strategic Economic Partnership Agreement (TPP). One of the chief goals is to mend fences between Seoul and Tokyo. The Philippines is also scheduled to sign an agreement on the use of its military bases for the first time since the US returned them in 1991. The visit to Malaysia, one of the countries involved in TPP negotiations, is the first by a US President since Lyndon Johnson in 1966.
The key question for the tour is how China responds to this approach. With the US strengthening alliances on one hand while looking for ways to collaborate with China on the other, Beijing is likely to be unhappy with the recent activity.
“The Obama administration is pursuing two goals, stronger alliances and cooperation with China, but it’s not an easy balance to strike,” said Michael Green, senior vice president for Asia at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS).
“The countries of Asia are going to paying close attention to where President Obama puts the emphasis during this visit,” Green added.
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