Reading Between the Lines of Obama’s Asia TourPolitics
Continuing and Reinforcing the “Rebalance to Asia” Policy
US President Barack Obama swung through Asia from April 23 to 29, 2014, covering Japan, South Korea, Malaysia, and the Philippines. The US government had positioned this tour as part of its efforts to step up its diplomatic, economic, and security involvement in the Asia-Pacific region, and the president met tirelessly with the leaders of each country. Amid growing misgivings about his administration’s policy of rebalancing to Asia, President Obama reaffirmed with the four countries the strengthening of bilateral diplomatic and security ties and clarified anew its commitment to its Asia-Pacific policies.
Joint Statement Mentions Senkaku Defense, to Chinese Objection
President Obama’s visit to Japan from April 23 to 25 marked the first state visit of a US president in 18 years, since that of former President Bill Clinton. It was the president’s third time in Japan. In addition to summit talks with Prime Minister Abe Shinzō, his whirlwind schedule under high security included a banquet at the Imperial Palace, watching yabusame (equestrian archery) at Meiji Shrine, and a tour of the National Museum of Emerging Science and Innovation.
The main focuses of the Japan-US summit were security and defense issues including Sino-Japanese relations and bilateral negotiations regarding the Trans-Pacific Partnership.
In the summit meeting, President Obama said of the Sino-Japanese dispute over the Senkaku Islands that it is important to resolve the issue peacefully by “not escalating the situation, keeping the rhetoric low, not taking provocative actions,” and seeking “confidence-building measures between Japan and China.” He also noted, “We don’t take a position on final sovereignty determinations with respect to Senkakus,” reiterating the US government’s stance on the matter. Meanwhile, he showed his consideration for China, which has today become the second largest economy in the world, by remarking at the joint press conference with Prime Minister Abe that the United States has “strong relations with China” and wants to “continue to encourage the peaceful rise of China.”
The joint statement issued on April 25 by the Japanese and US governments explicitly states that the commitments under Article 5 of the Japan-US Security Treaty “extend to all the territories under the administration of Japan, including the Senkaku Islands,” and that both countries “oppose any attempt to assert territorial or maritime claims through the use of intimidation, coercion, or force.” In the summit, President Obama also expressed his welcome and support for the Abe administration’s initiative to reinterpret the constitution regarding Japan’s right to collective self-defense.
The government of China, which claims sovereignty over the Senkaku Islands, strongly objected to these moves. It reiterated its position that the Diaoyu Islands (the Chinese name for the Senkaku Islands) are an integral part of China and criticized the Japan-US treaty as dating from the Cold War era.
“A Path Forward” Identified for TPP Talks
Soon after his arrival in Japan, President Obama had an informal dinner meeting with Prime Minister Abe at a sushi restaurant in Ginza. Although details of the 1.5-hour meeting have not been released, it is speculated that much of the discussion revolved around the TPP free trade talks. During the president’s sojourn, Japanese TPP Minister Amari Akira and US Trade Representative Ambassador Michael Froman met intermittently but intensively for ministerial-level talks.
A bilateral joint statement incorporating the results of these dialogues was released immediately before President Obama’s departure. Japan and the United States did not reach an agreement in the TPP negotiations due to outstanding issues including that of lowering tariffs on the five agricultural categories that Japan regards as “sacred.” Nonetheless, the Amari-Froman talks achieved significant working-level progress toward an agreement. The joint statement confirmed that negotiations would continue by noting, “Today, we have identified a path forward on important bilateral TPP issues.”
President Obama Touches on the “Comfort Women” Issue
The next leg of his trip took President Obama to South Korea, where he extended his condolences to the families of the victims of the sunken ferry Sewol at the summit meeting. In the light of North Korea’s preparations for a fourth nuclear test and other moves, the United States and South Korea agreed to reinforce bilateral cooperation to prevent further provocations by North Korea.
At a joint press conference with South Korean President Park Geun-hye, President Obama touched on the “comfort women” issue and pressured Japan. “Those women were violated in ways that, even in the midst of war, was shocking,” he said. “And they deserve to be heard; they deserve to be respected; and there should be an accurate and clear account of what happened.” At the same time, he urged South Korea to improve its relations with Japan with an eye on the future. President Park reiterated her position: “what is most important is that we go back to the pledges made by Prime Minister Abe [such as the upholding of the Murayama and Kōno statements] and their truthful actions be implemented from the Japan side.”
First Malaysia Visit by a US President in 48 Years
President Obama then stopped by Malaysia, becoming the first incumbent US president to set foot in the country in 48 years; the last had been President Lyndon Johnson, who visited in 1966 during the Vietnam War. Bilateral relations between Malaysia and the United States had been strained because the Mahathir administration, which stayed in power for 22 years from 1981, was critical of the United States.
In the summit meeting with Prime Minister Najib Razak held on April 27, the United States and Malaysia agreed to strengthen their comprehensive partnership, including on maritime security in the face of Malaysian territorial disputes with China and the latter’s increased naval presence in the South China Sea. Both further concurred that it is vital to fully implement the code of conduct for conflict prevention that the Association of Southeast Asian Nations and China are drawing up. “Malaysia welcomes America’s rebalancing towards Asia and its contribution to peace, stability, and prosperity in the region,” Prime Minister Najib said at the joint press conference. The two heads of state also discussed the search for the missing Malaysian airliner in the southern Indian Ocean, in which the US Navy has been providing assistance.
New Defense Agreement Brings US Army Back to the Philippines after 22 Years
In the Philippines, his last stop, President Obama met with President Benigno Aquino III on April 28. Both sides signed an Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement that opens the way for expanded US military presence in the Philippines, eyeing China’s consolidation of control in the South China Sea. The agreement will remain effective for 10 years with possible extension.
President Obama stressed in the joint press conference that the goal of the policy of rebalancing to Asia is not to counter or contain China with its maritime ambitions. With regard to the new defense cooperation agreement he said, “the goal for this agreement is to build Philippine capacity, to engage in training, to engage in coordination . . . not simply to deal with issues of maritime security, but also to enhance our capabilities so that if there’s a natural disaster that takes place, we’re able to potentially respond more quickly; if there are additional threats that may arise, that we are able to work in a cooperative fashion.”
Some Positive Results Achieved in Asia Tour
The issue of China’s growing maritime aggression was a hot topic in all four countries during the tour, making clear that US policy toward China is a major policy concern for the United States. While associating the “new type of relationship between major countries” proposed by Chinese President Xi Jinping with the “Group of Two” framework, the US government criticized China’s declaration of a new air defense identification zone (ADIZ) in the East China Sea and stated that the Senkaku Islands is subject to the Japan-US Security Treaty. Furthermore, it confirmed with each of the four countries that they would cooperate on territorial disputes between China and neighboring countries in the South China Sea.
Tensions are rising in the Asia-Pacific region as China’s growing military prowess becomes more evident. President Obama’s Asia tour achieved a certain degree of success by clarifying his determination to continue the policy of rebalancing to Asia and reconfirming the alliance or partnership with each of the countries he visited.
Outcomes of President Obama’s Four-Country Asia Tour (April 23–29, 2014)
|Dates||Country||Remarks by heads of state, key points of joint statements, etc.|
|April 23–25||Japan|| |
Joint press conference by heads of state
Japan-US Joint Statement
|April 25–26||South Korea|| |
US-Korea summit meeting
Joint press conference by heads of state
|April 26–28||Malaysia|| |
Summit meeting with Prime Minister Najib
|April 28–29||Philippines|| |
Summit meeting with President Aquino
(Banner photo: President Obama enjoys dinner with Prime Minister Abe and others at a sushi restaurant in Tokyo on April 23, 2014, the first day of his Asia tour. Although the dinner served to demonstrate the close relationship between the two heads of state, no broad agreement was reached in the TPP talks that followed. Photo courtesy Cabinet Public Relations Office/Jiji Press.)