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Obama’s tricky choices in Asia

02 May Obama’s tricky choices in Asia

As US President Barack Obama’s visit to Asia wound down on Tuesday (29 April), China’s state-run newspaper China Daily ran an editorial that said it was becoming “increasingly obvious that Washington is taking Beijing as an opponent”.

Commitment to allies 

Indeed Mr Obama’s visit was focused on military issues, and billed as a trip to reassure Washington’s Asian allies. In Tokyo, he reaffirmed the US’s treaty commitment to defending Japanese territory, including the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands, if attacked. In Seoul, he took pains to remind the North Koreans of the US’s “military might”. In the Philippines, he signed a 10-year defence pact, perhaps the most significant upgrade in bilateral relations since the Philippines ordered US troops to leave Subic Bay and Clark Air Base in 1991.

All of these moves can only be perceived as targeting China, the claimant state in the East and South China Sea disputes, despite Mr Obama saying that the US was not seeking to counter Beijing’s influence in the Asia-Pacific.

His explanation has done little to assuage Beijing. But at least the hawks in Washington are pleased about the US standing up to China. American foreign policy has grown feckless, they say, in the face of what they deem as a weak US response to the Syrian civil war and the Russian annexation of Crimea.

Moving the TPP forward

President Obama was also criticised for not offering enough trade incentives to move the negotiations for the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) forward – his other Asian agenda. No one expected any breakthroughs with the TPP on this trip. But those who criticised Mr Obama for neglecting trade with Asia for the military agenda miss a key point – the TPP does not include China. As such, the US has also been criticised for using the TPP as yet another tool to “contain” China and its influence in Asia.

Moreover, critics forget that the main hindrances to the TPP’s conclusion may come from Washington. The US Senate is not enthusiastic about the TPP in the context of his “pivot to Asia” foreign policy, which has put Mr Obama in a situation of “damned if you do, and damned if you don’t”.

The tricky choice in Malaysia

Since no headway on the TPP was made in Kualu Lumpur, local observers focused on politics. Mr Obama did not meet opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim, disappointing the latter’s supporters in Malaysia and Washington. Perhaps he was careful not to repeat what then US Vice-President Al Gore did in 1998, when he spoke up in support of Mr Anwar during the first of his sodomy trials. That deeply offended his Malaysian host and soured US-Malaysian relations for a long time.

As if to make up for this omission, Mr Obama told a town hall meeting in Kuala Lumpur that “Malaysia won’t succeed if the non-Muslims do not have the same opportunity”, a clear reference to Malaysia’s bumiputera policies which ethnic Chinese and Indian citizens are aggrieved about.

Overall, President Obama’s Asian tour was not a roaring success, but he did what he needed to. Faced with tricky choices on this trip, he navigated through them as deftly as possible, while reaffirming the “pivot to Asia” he championed when he first took office.


Obama’s Asia visit shows US sees China as “opponent”: media [Channel NewsAsia, 29 April 2014]

Obama’s visit to Asia flawed by lack of trade incentives [South China Morning Post, 29 April 2014]

Malaysia will not succeed if non-Muslims marginalised, says Obama [Malay Mail, 27 April 2014].