Obama in Asia

Barack Obama’s visit to four Asian countries has been described as a step towards implementing the ‘pivot to Asia’ policy that the US President announced some years ago.

The four countries — Japan, South Korea, the Philippines and Malaysia — have much in common; they are US allies to varying degrees and importantly, are China’s neighbours and are wary of its rising power.

In Japan, Obama failed to clinch a trade deal.

This will cloud the prospects of a proposed 12-nation Trans-Pacific Partnership trade pact.

It is a setback to a key political and economic component of the US’ pivot to Asia. Obama’s visits to South Korea and Malaysia were overshadowed by their preoccupation with recent tragedies.

Thus, although he did reassure Seoul of US support in its troubles with North Korea, this was drowned out by the media’s focus on public grief over the ferry tragedy.

It was in the Philippines that Obama scored his biggest success, signing a 10-year defence pact with the Philippines government.

It will allow increased presence of US troops in the archipelago and give US forces, planes and ships access to select Philippine bases.

Obama’s long-touted ‘pivot to Asia’ policy has repeatedly run into obstacles in the past with his domestic economic woes and crises in other parts of the world preventing him from focussing on Asia.

Several visits to Asia have been cancelled in recent years on account of these distractions.

That his four-nation visit actually happened despite the crisis in Ukraine suggests a change.

However, this swing through Asia with its limited outcome will convince few that the US foreign policy’s long-standing Eurocentricism and obsession with the Middle East has changed and that Asia is about to take the place of these regions.

It is likely that it was to reassure the US’ allies in Asia of its commitment to them that Obama, while in Japan, loudly affirmed support for Japan’s claims over the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands that China lays claim too as well.

Hitherto, Washington has avoided taking sides in China’s territorial disputes with its neighbours.

A joint statement issued at the end of Obama’s Japan visit saw the US put in writing that these islands are covered by a security treaty that obliges the US to defend Japan.

This move is sure to have ruffled feathers in Beijing even as it is unlikely to have convinced Japan that the US will set aside its own economic interests with China to back it in the event of military escalation with China. 

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