The four-nation trip made by US President Barack Obama in April 2014 could be interpreted in many different ways. It was important as in October 2013, Obama was not able to participate in the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) Summit and many commentators read it as a dilution of the ‘Asian pivot’. The recent visit had several objectives, and it seems that the US has been able to clearly convey most of its messages.
The first message was to China, and it conveyed that the US is not in agreement, at least at this point of time, with Xi Jinping’s idea of a ‘new type of great power relationship’. While the US commitment to the idea of its ‘Asian pivot’ could be debated, Washington seems to be serious about its commitment to its regional allies, Japan, South Korea, Philippines, and so on. Although Obama made it clear that the US did want to ‘control’ or ‘contain’ China, the message he sent across the region was loud and clear, and naturally, it created a big hue and cry in the Chinese media.
The second goal was to persuade Japan and South Korea to be more accommodating of each other. It was indeed a tough job, and the US President tried to demonstrate his full commitment to Japan while at the same time cited historical references and the issue of comfort women to soothe South Korean sentiments. He suggested that by being more ‘honest’ to the past, these issues could be resolved. He also said that more than the past, it is important to “also keep our eye to the future and possibilities of peace and prosperity.” It was a clear message to its two closest allies that the US does not endorse their animosity and does not want to become a party to it. It would be interesting to see whether this message will be lost in the domestic politics of these two countries or will initiate a new phase in their bilateral relations.
The third message was the very inclusion of Malaysia in Obama’s itinerary. Malaysia is considered to be a ‘swing state’ and the visit means that the US is interested in reaching out to more partners in Southeast Asia, apart from consolidating its relations with time-tested partners. However, Obama’s attempt to forge a partnership with Malaysia has raised some tough questions regarding human rights and other issues. It could arguably be called the most discomfiting leg of Obama’s visit. The only solace was that the itinerary was finalised and announced at least seven months in advance and China was aware that this was going to happen.
The fourth purpose of the visit was to send another resolute message to North Korea that the US is in no mood to change its tough but consistent policy of ‘strategic patience’, and is not ready to negotiate with a nuclear North Korea. This message was also conveyed during the Nuclear Security Summit in March 2014 in The Hague to Xi Jinping, when he proposed a renewal of the Six-Party Talks with North Korea. During Obama’s visit to Seoul, there was speculation that North Korea might conduct a fourth nuclear test. However, Obama was not deterred by the shadow of a possible North Korean nuclear test and said that it would ‘further isolate’ North Korea and invite more ‘biting sanctions’.
The fifth and most obvious message Obama gave to China during his visit was with regard to the Philippines. Although he did not name China, he said that sovereignty, territorial rights, international law, and freedom of navigation must be respected. He expressed the US’ ‘iron-clad’ commitment to the Philippines’ security, and emphasised that all disputes must be settled peacefully, and not by intimidation and force. It was a clear message to China regarding its behaviour in the South China Sea and territorial disputes with the Philippines. The US also has a defence deal with the Philippines which would bring back US troops to the country at a much larger scale.
The sixth and probably less discussed objective of the visit was canvassing for the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). The partnership is one of the most important economic negotiations currently underway, one which seek to establish a free-trade regime for countries that constitute 40 per cent of the world’s GDP. Most importantly, it excludes China.
Thus, Obama’s visit to East Asia sent clear messages about the US’ intentions to friend and foe alike. Now, the question is whether the US has the capacity to execute these intentions given the complex equations in regional politics and Chinese responses to the US’ messages. It is said that clarity of intent and consistency of policy is not necessarily a merit of foreign policy in international relations, and an assessment of the visit at this point would be premature.