POLICY ALERT: Asian Powers Re-Assess U.S. “Rebalance” as President Obama Travels the Region
As President Barack Obama wraps up his week-long trip to Japan, South Korea, Malaysia, and the Philippines, Asian powers are re-assessing the U.S. economic and security commitment to the region. In this Policy Alert, we examine commentary from Japan, South Korea, China, and India on U.S. foreign policy in Asia.
Japanese newspapers discussed the “mixed” results of the U.S.-Japan summit.
- At the summit, President Obama explicitly stated for the first time that the U.S.-Japan Security Treaty covers the disputed Senkaku Islands and supported the Abe administration’s move toward revising the constitutional interpretation of the right to collective self-defense.
- The Yomiuri Shimbun welcomed the strengthened U.S. security commitment as “a milestone achievement” in bilateral relations. The Sankei Shimbun agreed, urging the Abe administration to allow collective self-defense rights and to assume a more active security role in order to deter China.
- The U.S.-Japan alliance alone is “not enough” to check Chinese provocations, argued the Mainichi Shimbun, calling on Prime Minister Abe to utilize not only military might but also diplomatic engagement. The Asahi Shimbun also contended that Abe should “take a first step toward mending Japan’s ties with its neighbors” in light of the recent history disputes.
The bilateral summit produced few results on the economic front, however, as the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) negotiation failed to reach an agreement.
- The Yomiuri Shimbun remained pessimistic, saying that “there is not much room for optimismheading into the final phase of negotiations,” as both governments face domestic opposition in making compromises.
- Both countries must reach an agreement not only for economic interests but also for regional security, argued the Mainichi Shimbun. “By sharing transparent and fair economic rules, the scheme aims to keep China in check-even embracing the emerging communist country in the future.”
- The Nikkei Shimbun agreed, saying that the TPP negotiations will “test [the] allies’ solidarity… [and] shape the future of an Asia-Pacific region facing an ascendant China.”
Korean media outlets remained critical of the “rebalance” policy to Asia, which President Obama re-emphasized during the bilateral summit in Seoul.
- The Hankyoreh criticized the summit for coming up short on solutions to resolve North Korean nuclear issues, claiming that the current hardline stance lacks diplomatic flexibility and is unlikely to bring North Korea back to the Six-Party talks.
- The U.S. rebalancing policy is “limited” because “American officials do not fully grasp the layers of history between Japan and the rest of East Asia,” argued Kim Young-ho, professor emeritus at Kyungpook National University. “If the United States focuses too much of its efforts on Japan, China will be provoked by old grudges, further pursue its military ambitions, and quite possibly seek to reinforce its alliance with Russia.”
- The Korea Times warned that President Obama’s endorsement of Tokyo’s right to collective self-defense may lead to Japan’s military resurgence without repentance of the past. The “‘pivot to Asia’ will get nowhere if he fails to persuade-or force-Japan to own up to its past misdeeds before reasserting itself.” The Hankyoreh shared similar concerns.
- “If Washington calls for a pivot to Asia only in words and thinks that Asia issues can be left in the hands of Japan, it could aggravate the already entangled situation in the region. If the U.S. wants to properly pursue the pivot to Asia, it should clear the fundamental issue of Japan’s history distortion,” argued the Dong-A Ilbo.
Commentators in China expressed skepticism about the U.S. commitment to security in Asia.
- “For the United States and its allies in the region, they need to make a convincing case about their proclaimed commitment to regional stability,” opined Xinhua writer Luo Jun.
- “One of the main aims of Barack Obama’s trip is to assure the U.S.’ allies and partners in the region that the U.S. stands behind them. However, when it comes to the real threats to Asia’s security, especially Japan’s turn to the right, the U.S. finds it difficult to articulate a clear policy,” said the China Daily.
Regarding President Obama’s visit to Japan and affirmation of the U.S.-Japan Security Treaty, Chinese newspapers expressed concern.
- China Daily wrote, “Since he [Obama] has voluntarily bound his country to Abe’s war chariot…he might want to start considering how he is going to untie the knots and tame the adventurous Japan under Abe, or prepare to be dragged into an unwanted conflict.”
- Liu Tian and Feng Wuyong, editors at the state-run Xinhua said, “with an unscrupulous Abe going further down the road to challenge post-war international order and make Japan a ‘normal state’, Obama’s defense commitment would leave the United States hijacked by Japanese rightwing forces and turn Japan-U.S. military alliance into a war machine that threatens peace and stability in the Asia-Pacific region and the rest of the world.”
Indian newspapers and commentators discussed the implications of President Obama’s trip for India’s security and the U.S. rebalance to Asia.
- India-Japan-U.S. trilateral talks are now “on a higher plane,” opined the Times of India, as the Japan-U.S. joint statement highlighted a trilateral dialogue between Japan, India and the U.S. for “peace and economic prosperity in the Asia-Pacific and around the globe.”
- “Obama’s strategic problem now is to reassure East Asian allies of the strength of American commitment to them without provoking an unwanted conflict between the U.S. and China,” explained C. Raja Mohan, a distinguished fellow at the Observer Research Foundation, Delhi. “If they are convinced that no great power is willing or capable of balancing China, many Asian states might come to believe that strategic deference to Beijing is the only option they have.”