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United States President Visits Asia Pacific April 2014: Challenges

Paper No. 5688                                      Dated 25-Apr-2014

By Dr Subhash Kapila

United States President Obama commenced his four-nation visit to the Asia Pacific region by his first State Visit to Japan which commenced on April 23 2014 and will be followed by visits to South Korea, Philippines and Malaysia and these visits becoming strategically significant in that contextually it is taking place against rising tensions generated by China in East Asia more pointedly.

The US President’s visit is strategically significant in that Japan, South Korea and Philippines enjoy bilateral security alliance relationships and Japan and the Philippines lately have been the victims of adversarial military actions by China endangering regional security and stability. South Korea though not locked in any territorial conflicts with China, however, has major security concerns posed to its security by the nuclear-armed Chinese proxy, namely North Korea.

Malaysia is eagerly looking forward to President Obama’s visit as it was cancelled at short notice last autumn when President Obama was faced with a shut-down of the US Government by Congressional cuts and therefore had to be present in Washington. Malaysia is perceived by the United States as a moderate democratic Islamic country and well worth the US diplomatic effort.

US President’s seven day swing through Asia Pacific can be overall expected to focus on two major thrusts, the first being strategic and the second, economic. Strategically the US President would seek to impress on his hosts that the United States is serious about reinforcing the US Strategic Pivot to Asia Pacific despite any budgetary cuts and some Middle East distractions. The Asia Pacific nations hosting the US President’s visit would necessarily like to be reassured by the US President that the United States has firm intentions to stay embedded in East Asia and Asia Pacific and would be looking forward to obtain some strong and meaningful guarantees from the United States.

Economically, it is the United States that would be seeking to motivate his host countries to actively join the US-sponsored Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) which is being viewed as an economic grouping to forestall China’s unchallenged economic supremacy in the region. In a certain sense it could also be termed as aimed at economic containment of China.

Japan logically was the first stop of President Obama as a major nation of not only East Asia but also of Asia Pacific. In fact along with India it is a contending power with China. Unlike China it is a benign Asian power and a responsible stakeholder in Asian security and stability. Japan has been a longstanding and reliable military ally of the United States.

Japan today under the dynamic and assertive leadership of Prime Minister Abe is intent on striking a self-reliant defence posture and possibly also likely to amend the war-renouncing Peace Constitution imposed by the United States in 1951. Japan has held its own in the face of Chinese provocations and military brinkmanship over the East China Sea Senkaku Islands held by Japan. The United States is worried that in the climate of military brinkmanship resorted to by Chia against Japan even a small incident could ignite armed hostilities.

In such a resultant situation the United States would be placed on the horns of a strategic dilemma centring on Japan and China. Japan is a valuable strategic ally which the United States would loathe to lose. China on the other hand is a nation with which the United States for multiple reasons would like to craft a strategically accommodative relationship despite its Congagement China Strategy. It is a ‘lose-lose’ relationship either way for the United States whichever side the United States takes and therefore the biggest strategic challenge for the United States in the Asia Pacific.

It needs to be recalled that the United States very reluctantly conceded the Japanese interpretation that any Chinese aggression in the Senkaku Islands falls within the ambit of the US-Japan Mutual Security Treaty and that the United States is obliged to come to Japan’s assistance.

While a lot of ‘alliance rhetoric’ will emerge in Tokyo during the American President’s visit the success of the US President’s visit to Japan would heavily depend on how the United States can wriggle out or predominate its strong ally relationship with Japan over its China Hedging Strategy.

South Korea would also pose a strong challenge to the US President over its strategic and security concerns arising from North Korea’s nuclear and missiles threat. Here again China enters into the US strategic calculus as the US predicament is that over the years China despite US pressures to rein-in its nuclear  armed protégé and regional spoiler state, China has not responded positively. Reinforcing and fine-tuning the existing US Forces command structures in South Korea is said to figure in the US President’s discussions while in Seoul.

Likewise Japan, the Philippines also offers a major strategic challenge for the United States in terms of its relationship with China. The Philippines has been subjected to armed aggression by China on Philippines ownership of islands in the Spratly’s in the South China Sea. The Philippines also refused to cow down in face of Chinese brinkmanship and presumably much to the chagrin of the United States has referred its dispute with China to the concerned UN Arbitration Council. Once again, the United States was forced to admit that Chinese aggression in the South China Sea conflicts would render United States to render military assistance to the Philippines.

The Philippines once again has indicated after two decades that it is ready to host US military presence at the famous Subic Bay Naval base and other bases in the Philippines. The United States has come out with lukewarm responses impelled by US fears that it would antagonise China. The United States is however involved in an incremental capacity-building of Philippines naval capabilities for its roes in repelling Chines aggression in the South China Sea.

President Obama’s stop-over in Malaysia emerges as the least challenging as even though Malaysia is involved in sovereignty disputes with China over its South China Sea possessions, the Chinese have been careful in not to indulge in conflict escalation with Malaysia. The visit to Malaysia has more diplomatic and economic overtones since no US President has visited Malaysia for decades. The last visit was by President Lyndon Johnson.

China will be keenly watching and scrutinising every detail of President Obama’s visit to Asia Pacific nations as the strategic nuances that emerge and spill out would greatly determine the future course of China’s Grand Strategy in the Asia Pacific and so also the future course of US-China relations.

As President Obama traverses through this region for the next seven days, the United States cannot be oblivious to the Russian President’s strategic forays and diplomatic moves in the Asia Pacific in terms of the declaration in 2012 of Russia’s Strategic Pivot to the Asia Pacific. The Russian openings to Japan, South Korea and even Malaysia notwithstanding its so-called strategic nexus with China can hardly be overlooked by the United States.

The United States in Asia Pacific today faces a major strategically challenging template where the United States has no longer an unassailable strategic predominance in the Asia Pacific. The United States predominance in Asia Pacific is under challenge from a strategically wayward China and Russia intent on re-emerging as an independent power centre.

In such a security environment the United States can no longer take its allies for granted and the United State will have to walk the extra mile that there are no ambiguities when it comes to United States honouring its security commitments to its traditional allies under threat from a militarily adventurist China with a marked propensity to settle its territorial dispute with its neighbours by use of military force and political coercion. That will be the biggest strategic challenge for the US President as he swings through the Asia Pacific in the coming seven days.

Is this reality that prompted the US President not to club his Asia Pacific tour with a China- visit added to his itinerary and thereby signalling appropriately China and America’s traditional allies in the region?