As far as pivots go, President Obama’s diplomatic trip to Asia wasn’t a dramatic turn. Rather, it was a gradual shift that recognized the strategic need to rebalance toward the growing geopolitical and economic importance of the region.
Events surrounding the trip — including the Russian-led crisis in Europe and the collapse of Mideast peace talks — highlighted the challenge of focusing too much on a specific region.
Still, Obama made incremental progress in Asia. Fences were mended after the federal government shutdown led to cancellation of a previously scheduled presidential visit. Most important, Obama reassured Asian allies that the United States can be counted on as China rises.
Indeed, while China was not on the itinerary, it was the backdrop to the trip. Obama’s goal — really, the world’s — is to ensure that China’s rise is peaceful. History is replete with suddenly rising powers upending global protocols. Often the result is war. Obama’s challenge is to not needlessly isolate China, but to encourage its leaders to be predictable and rational actors on the world stage.
While Obama was quite specific in his regional reassurances, he adroitly avoided provoking Beijing. His visit was enough of a signal. On the dispute between China and Japan over uninhabited islands in the East China Sea, for instance, Obama again avoided taking sides, but reconfirmed that the U.S.-Japan defense pact would be in effect if China unwisely tries to settle the matter militarily.
China has similar disputes with other Asian nations, so the message was important for those countries, too. Yet tensions were reduced, at least slightly, last week when a new naval code of conduct was signed by the United States, China, Japan and 18 other Pacific nations to try to avoid any military miscalculations in disputed areas.
Obama’s trip to South Korea — his fourth, reflecting the importance of the bilateral relationship — gave the president a chance to try to bridge the troubling divides between South Korea and Japan over renewed World War II-era grievances. As important, it was yet another signal of allied resolve in the face of rumors that North Korea is considering yet another nuclear weapons test.
Appropriately and deftly, Obama used his visits to South Korea and Malaysia to express condolences and solidarity with governments beleaguered and grieving over the ferry disaster in South Korea and the still-unresolved disappearance of a Malaysian jet.
The swift and effective U.S. response to another disaster, Typhoon Haiyan, which hit the Philippines in November, led many Filipinos to reassess the U.S. military after years of tension. The result is that the United States and the Philippines signed a 10-year agreement that will give the U.S. military more access to bases in that country. This signals that not only is America willing to help out in a natural disaster, but it will be there in the long run to prevent man-made crises from escalating, too.
While all of these signals are important, many Asian allies, as well as China, will be watching the West’s response to Russian aggression in Ukraine. On Monday, the Obama administration levied a new round of sanctions against Russia. The European Union should follow suit. The action is crucial in curbing Russian President Vladimir Putin’s destabilizing militarism. And it’s also crucial in reassuring Asia that the Obama administration will lead not just with rhetoric but with action.
What Obama did not accomplish during his trip was significant, too. He failed to get the United States and Japan to agree on compromises necessary to advance the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a proposed 12-nation trade agreement that should now be viewed as a key foreign policy objective as much as it is a trade pact. And Obama should have backed up the U.S. commitment to democracy and human rights by meeting with Malaysian opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim.
Overall, Obama made meaningful, if limited, progress in Asia. But it will soon be forgotten if the United States does not effectively respond to Russia or fails to follow through with promises made during the trip. The pivot cannot be a one-time turn.