Obama’s complicated east Asia trip
Apr 24 2014
Although Japan is the most important ally of the US in Asia, the last official state visit of a US president happened 18 years ago. President George W Bush, of course, visited Japan but that was not given the protocol of a state visit. The choice of the countries for Obama’s east Asia tour carries a lot of geopolitical significance. South Korea, like Japan, is an ally of the US that has deployed in both countries substantial troop contingents and sophisticated defence installations. With Manila, Washington has a defence treaty. The Philippines, which had been an American colony for a short time, is one of the oldest partners of the US in Asia and is a major strategic non-Nato ally. Until 1992, the Americans had a base in the Philippines but they withdrew after the Philippine senate had rejected the treaty. With Malaysia, the US do not have any special defence related agreements. However, President Obama had visited neighbour and rival Indonesia a few years ago.
With the exception of Malaysia, the visit of the US president takes place clearly in the shadow of newly powerful China. Sino-Japanese relations have become frosty and even tense since prime minister Shinzo Abe is leading the country. In fact, only a few days before Obama’s state visit, Abe and his conservative colleagues within the ruling Liberal Democratic Party angered Beijing, and indeed Seoul once more, by making visits to and symbolic gestures towards the controversial Shinto Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo. This shrine commemorates the war dead of Japan. However, also the souls of major Japanese war criminals are enshrined, and therefore, the countries that have suffered under Japanese imperialism and occupation see visits by political leaders as part of a campaign to revise the painful and controversial history of the so-called Pacific War.
There can be no doubt that in Japan, conservative, even reactionary voices, have become more stringent in recent times. There have been provocative statements by Japanese politicians on a number of war crimes, not least the abuses by the Japanese army in the case of the so-called “comfort women”. Furthermore, Abe is clearly on a course to expand the military strength as well as the operational reach of the Japanese defence forces, which is seen by China as militaristic adventurism. Finally, there is the quarrel of the two neighbours over the Senkaku Islands in the South China Sea, a quarrel that could easily turn violent and draw the US into an armed conflict it certainly does not want.
Japan, South Korea and Malaysia are members of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) and the Philippines have announced their interest to join this organisation which brings together Asian-Pacific nations. TPP is focused on economic issues, namely on trade, but as it excludes China, it is also rightly seen as an instrument of containment of China. Dealing with the concrete issues of the TPP, negotiations between Washington and Tokyo are, however, not as smooth as it would be strategically desirable. There are substantial hurdles in the agricultural and auto sectors.
In Seoul, Obama will encounter a nation in mourning. The ferry disaster has shaken the country badly. At present, there are, once again, fears that North Korea might dramatically increase regional tensions by nuclear tests. Without any doubt, the Korean Peninsula belongs to the most dangerous crisis spots in the world. Efforts to de-escalate the situation have been on hold since a number of years. Pyongyang is unpredictable and one never knows what will be the next surprise this hermit country springs on its neighbours and on the world. One thing is clear: Beijing, for whatever reason, is not willing and also not capable to reign in the young North Korean dictator.
In the South China Sea, China has territorial conflicts with almost all riverain countries. The tensions with the Philippines are particularly strong as China is claiming islands that are contingent to the national sovereignty of this country. The Philippines, as an overwhelmingly christian nation, have traditionally strong relations with the US. Their political culture is similar to the American and there are a lot of lifestyle affinities between the two countries. Manila is fully aware that amongst all the major southeast Asian countries, it has the weakest naval power and certainly cannot stand on its own in case of major Chinese pressures. Therefore, although the US does not run a base in the Philippines anymore, they stand committed to strong military assistance in case of Chinese aggression. In the light of China’s rise, it is expected that Obama’s visit in Manila will be a cordial affair.
(The writer is the Far East correspondent of Swiss daily Neue Zurcher Zeitung)