Obama Tries Again in Asia, but Ukraine May Dominate

Stymied on multiple occasions in recent years, the president hopes to reassure Asian nations personally this week.

National Journal
George E. Condon Jr.
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George E. Condon Jr.
April 21, 2014, 4:03 p.m.

Pres­id­ent Obama nev­er seems to get Asia trips to go the way they are planned.

As he be­gins an am­bi­tious weeklong vis­it to four Asi­an coun­tries, the White House is hop­ing this one sticks to the agenda, which in­cludes eco­nom­ic, trade, and se­cur­ity meas­ures to demon­strate that his much-talked-about “pivot” to the Pa­cific is pay­ing off. But the ad­min­is­tra­tion knows that re­gion­al ten­sions and in­stabil­ity in Ukraine are cer­tain to force their way in­to the talks he will hold with oth­er lead­ers — and just may steal the spot­light.

Be­fore fly­ing to Ja­pan, the pres­id­ent on Tues­day will stop in Oso, Wash., the town about 50 miles north­east of Seattle where 41 were killed and two dozen homes were des­troyed in a dev­ast­at­ing mud­slide March 22. From there, he will go to Tokyo, then to South Korea on Fri­day, Malay­sia on Sat­urday, and the Phil­ip­pines on Monday.

Second only to end­ing the wars in Ir­aq and Afgh­anistan, the pivot to Asia has been one of the sig­nal for­eign policy changes Obama has im­ple­men­ted as pres­id­ent. But his ef­forts to per­son­ally cham­pi­on that policy over­seas have of­ten been sty­mied.

In 2009, Chinese of­fi­cials hi­jacked an Obama town-hall meet­ing in Shang­hai, pack­ing it with com­mun­ist sup­port­ers. In 2010, two planned trips to In­done­sia were can­celed be­cause of the health care de­bate and the Gulf oil spill. When he did make it to In­done­sia that year, he had to cut the trip short be­cause vol­can­ic ash threatened to ground Air Force One. Then, last Oc­to­ber, the pres­id­ent had to can­cel plans to at­tend two re­gion­al sum­mits be­cause of the gov­ern­ment shut­down at home.

At the time, the can­cel­la­tion raised ques­tions about the depth of the Obama’s com­mit­ment to the re­gion that is lead­ing the world in eco­nom­ic growth. It also offered an open­ing for China to fill in re­gion­al lead­er­ship.

This week, Obama gets to try again. But this trip takes place against a back­drop of Rus­si­an pro­voca­tions in Ukraine that have raised ques­tions about the U.S. re­solve to come to the aid of threatened al­lies. That, said Mi­chael J. Green at the Cen­ter for Stra­tegic and In­ter­na­tion­al Stud­ies, is “the bad news for the pres­id­ent.” Green, who was dir­ect­or for Asi­an Af­fairs at the Na­tion­al Se­cur­ity Coun­cil for much of George W. Bush’s pres­id­ency, said there “are ques­tions in the re­gion … par­tic­u­larly among al­lies, about Amer­ic­an stay­ing power and the cred­ib­il­ity of Amer­ic­an com­mit­ments.”

Green said Ukraine has ex­acer­bated the situ­ation, but the ques­tions first were raised after the pres­id­ent failed to re­spond force­fully to Syr­ia’s use of chem­ic­al weapons. Obama’s re­sponse to Syr­ia, he said, “really rattled” Asi­an lead­ers deal­ing with Obama.

But Jef­frey A. Bader, who was seni­or dir­ect­or for East Asi­an Af­fairs on the NSC in Obama’s first term, be­lieves the fears about U.S. cred­ib­il­ity will prove un­foun­ded on the trip, call­ing it “fun­da­ment­ally false” that Ja­pan or oth­er U.S. al­lies “are nervous about the U.S. re­ac­tion to Ukraine.” Bader said the pres­id­ent will find Asi­an lead­ers even more wel­com­ing of a ro­bust Amer­ic­an se­cur­ity pres­ence in Asia be­cause of Ukraine.

In­deed, the word most heard de­scrib­ing Obama’s mis­sion on the trip is “re­as­sur­ance” — re­as­sur­ance that the United States will hon­or its treaty ob­lig­a­tions in the Pa­cific, re­as­sur­ance that the pres­id­ent is ser­i­ous about push­ing a ma­jor trade deal through a balky Con­gress, re­as­sur­ance that the pivot to Asia is more than rhet­or­ic­al, and re­as­sur­ance that Amer­ic­an policy to­ward China is prop­erly bal­anced. Na­tion­al Se­cur­ity Ad­viser Susan Rice called the trip “an im­port­ant op­por­tun­ity to un­der­score our con­tin­ued fo­cus on the Asia-Pa­cific re­gion.”

Meet­ing with re­port­ers at the White House, Rice stressed the reas­ons for the pivot, not­ing that “over the next five years, nearly half of all growth out­side the United States is ex­pec­ted to come from Asia.” She said Obama sees “a sig­ni­fic­ant de­mand for U.S. lead­er­ship in that re­gion.”

But Rice also ac­know­ledged that Ukraine will have an im­pact on the agenda. “The coun­tries of the re­gion clearly are watch­ing this care­fully and are cog­niz­ant of the im­plic­a­tions for the lar­ger in­ter­na­tion­al or­der,” she said.

As al­ways, the growth and in­flu­ence of China hov­ers over the trip, even though the pres­id­ent will not be stop­ping there. Ken­neth G. Lieber­th­al, seni­or dir­ect­or for Asia on Bill Clin­ton’s NSC, said that “a ma­jor un­der­ly­ing is­sue throughout the trip” will be “wheth­er the pres­id­ent can strike the right bal­ance between provid­ing con­fid­ence that the U.S. will meet its se­cur­ity com­mit­ment without be­ing drawn in­to lan­guage and prom­ises that will tilt to­ward mak­ing China the bulls-eye.” That will re­quire some dip­lo­mat­ic fin­esse when the oth­er lead­ers bring up their dis­putes with China over is­lands and ter­rit­ori­al bor­ders in both the South China Sea and the East China Sea. And it will re­quire the pres­id­ent to care­fully de­fend his pivot without it com­ing across to Beijing as a strategy to “con­tain” China.

An­oth­er chal­lenge for the pres­id­ent is find­ing a way to achieve pro­gress on the 12-coun­try Trans-Pa­cific Part­ner­ship trade talks, which are cur­rently stalled. Talks in Tokyo re­sume Tues­day in a last-minute ef­fort to break a stale­mate over mar­ket ac­cess. Wash­ing­ton is press­ing hard for the slash­ing of Ja­pan­ese tar­iffs that ef­fect­ively keep Amer­ic­an beef and pork out of the Ja­pan­ese mar­ket and Tokyo is push­ing for easi­er ac­cess to the Amer­ic­an mar­ket for Ja­pan­ese autos.

“Bet­ting is against any break­through,” Green warned, in part be­cause the Asi­an lead­ers are well aware that the pres­id­ent is un­able to de­liv­er his own party in Con­gress to sup­port a trade deal, even if it is achieved. “The Ja­pan­ese side ar­gues that the pres­id­ent’s not will­ing to make the case for trade pro­mo­tion au­thor­ity or fast track, so why should Ja­pan take a hit and do all of the hard polit­ics?”

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