US President Barack Obama is set to visit Eastern Asia next week. The trip will take place amid mounting tensions in the region. Last year, the US was dragged into several crises in the traditional hot spots in the Middle East and Afghanistan. As a result, Obama failed to meet his 2011 pledge to make Eastern Asia a cornerstone of Washington’s foreign policy. The Voice of Russia asked Michael O’Hanlon, director of research for the Foreign Policy program at the Brookings Institution, about the agenda of the upcoming Obama’s visit.
Three years ago, Obama and then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton announced that the United States is going to make Eastern Asia its top priority. However, the relations between the countries in the region have been going from bad to worse lately.
Japan is seriously concerned about the North Korean recent nuclear test launches. China only escalates tensions with its aggressive actions at sea. As a result, the long-time rift between China and Japan over the disputed Senkaky Islands is deepening.
Many experts link the loss of the initial enthusiasm in relation to the Asian strategy with resignation of Hillary Clinton last year. The visit comes at the time when US Secretary of State John Kerry is working out his country’s position around conflicts in Ukraine and Syria. Besides, the White House has been seriously investing into hammering a Middle East peace pact and curbing the Iranian nuclear program.
What can be expected from Obama’s visit to Eastern Asia? What is there to improve in relations between the US and Asian countries?
I think it is important for him to underscore that America remains committed to its allies. As you know, this is a difficult time based partly on what’s been happening in Ukraine and a lot of people wonder if there are implications for Asia, and many people are asking many different questions. But one of them boils down to the issue of to what extent will America prevent crises like that from happening in the East China Sea and the south China Sea, and what is too weak somehow in its response to Ukraine, does it suggest that it is not committed to handle potential adventurism by China. Those are the kinds of questions that Mr. Obama needs to address. But I think he can have a fairly straight forward answer and I think it will be reasonably reassuring to most countries in the region without having to be provocative or threatening to anyone else. So, I think that probably will go well. Mostly he just needs to make this trip. It was postponed from last fall as you know and he needs to invigorate the so-called Asia Pacific rebalance because we’ve lost some momentum with that recently.
Do you think the main aim of Obama’s visit is political, geopolitical or financial, economic?
I think the main aim is strategic and diplomatic but there is still a hope as you are probably aware that we can have a better trade agreement with the Asia Pacific region and many countries in that region, which we call the Transpacific partnership, but it still is a negotiation, it is not clear if the US Senate would ratify it even if we were able to negotiate such a treaty. Of course if that were successful, it would have economic benefits but I think that is probably a distant prospect. So, in the short term I think this is more about trying to calm some relationships, as you know, and as you mentioned in your preamble to this discussion, there are some difficult relationships in the region between Japan and Korea, Japan and China, China and the Philippines, and I think trying to play a role in being as conciliatory as possible towards most of these countries and even China but also being clear in our commitment to our allies, that is an important balance for the president to try to strike on this trip.
What are any other weak points right now if we talk about relations between the US and East Asian countries? What tends to be improved upon?
It is a good question and it maybe is a somewhat separate question from what Mr. Obama can realistically do on this trip because I think the trip is going to have more immediate sort of agenda, but if you look at some of the underlying relationships, I think they are generally pretty good. But let’s take for example the US-Japan alliance. It is a strong alliance, it is a good alliance but Prime Minister Abe in Japan is having some difficulty to put it mildly in his relations with his neighbors. Many of them see him as unrepentant for Japan’s part mistakes of decades ago and that has complicated along with China’s rise some of the relationships in the region. And I think we probably need to try to find a way to very gently suggest to our Japanese ally as well as to China and Korea some of the things they can do to improve their relationship. There are various things that Mr. Abe could do. I am not blaming him for the crisis or the deterioration of relations but he can make it better and there are some things he has probably done wrong that we can gently point out to him.
In your view, what are the obstacles for the US to resolve regional conflicts in Eastern Asia?
I think the rise of China changes everything at some level and obviously the amount of power, the resources, the military capability, the diplomatic confidence that China now has makes everything different. I don’t want to blame it all on China. This is a natural effect you get when a country becomes a great power but issues that China was not previously wiling or able to talk about or to challenge or to raise such as the disputed territories in the East China Sea and South China Sea now China is able to raise some of these and to challenge the previous arrangements that had governed some of the distributions of territory and resources in this region in the past. And I think that means we are going to be in for a long challenging period.