His stops all seemed designed, in part, to send a message to China
Trade was a tough well for him
Other issues have overshadowed the Asia pivot
After four countries, three formal state dinners, two speeches to American troops and one encounter with a menacing humanoid robot, President Barack Obama flies home Tuesday having completed his long-awaited trip to Asia.
The goals for the visit were ambitious: reassure allies the United States remains committed to a “pivot to Asia,” secure new deals to expand trade, and send a message to China that the United States has its allies’ backs in territorial disputes.
Some of those goals were met; others less so. Here are five takeaways from Obama’s trip to Asia:
1. China, China, China
Obama came to Asia to bolster ties with Japan, South Korea, Malaysia and the Philippines. But his stops in all four countries all seemed designed, in part, to send a message to China: “We’re on their side.”
While Obama and his aides have been quick to dispel the notion this week’s trip amounted to a “containment tour,” the President’s announcements throughout his visit — mostly military in nature — made clear the White House knew Beijing was watching closely.
Before Obama even landed in Tokyo he’d taken Japan’s side in its bitter spat with China over a set of uninhabited islands in the East China Sea — suggesting the United States would lend support to Japan should the squabble escalate militarily.
A week later, the White House announced the United States and the Philippines would enter into a new defense pact that allows for more American troops in Southeast Asia — interpreted by China as an attempt to balance its own presence in a region where land and water are in constant dispute.
Obama denied that was the intention of the agreement. “Our goal is not to counter China, our goal is not to contain China,” he said in Manila. But more troops in the region will undoubtedly be some deterrent against any Chinese incursion into contested waters.
For the first time since the 1990s, when American bases were closed in the Philippines, the United States will have a substantial military footprint there. And that’s no accident, say experts who predict the next major world crisis will unfold off of China’s coast.
“This is a region that’s going to be on the boil for years and years to come,” said Robert Kaplan, the chief geopolitical analyst for Stradfor, on CNN this week. “Seas crowded with warships, submarines, merchant shipping, fifth generation fighter jets — that can easily create incidents that in turn could enable a crisis.”
That’s exactly the kind of crisis Obama wants to prevent through greater U.S. attention to China’s neighbors. In Seoul the President said China “has to abide by certain norms” when it comes to its quarrels with neighbors.
2. Trade a tougher sell
Obama’s promise of greater U.S. military cooperation in Asia was largely welcomed in the countries he visited. Less so was his pitch for new trade agreements, which sputtered in Japan in the midst of domestic political challenges for Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.
The Trans Pacific Partnership would ease business ties between the United States and Asian partners — a goal Obama claims would create jobs for both sides while opening up new markets for U.S. firms.
After several rounds of negotiations, Obama had hoped to be able to announce an agreement with Japan during his stop in Tokyo. That proved impossible as talks stalled amid Japanese concerns over agricultural protections for beef and rice.
The two sides scrambled to produce evidence of progress, working right up until Obama was about to depart Japan to provide a positive update on the talks. Even then, the White House was only able to say the two sides had “identified a path forward” in the negotiations — without specifying where the two sides were coming into agreement.
“There are still negotiations to be had. There are details to be worked out,” said a senior administration official, adding the two sides had agreed only on “parameters” for the deal.
It was a disappointing result for the first stop of Obama’s Asia trip, though his own domestic politics — including resistance to new trade deals from Democrats in Congress — would have made any new deal a tough sell.
That political opposition makes it all but impossible for Obama to see a new trade deal through Congress before the 2014 midterm elections.
3. Did Obama get his pivot?