Barack Obama ended a four-country tour of Asia on April 28th with a banquet in Manila. His trip was intended as the latest affirmation of America’s vaunted “pivot” to Asia. The pivot — now more often referred to as a “rebalancing” — is perhaps the most memorable foreign-policy idea to emerge from Mr Obama’s two-term presidency.
But in outline, it seems that his hosts — in Japan, South Korea, Malaysia and the Philippines — took rather more from the visiting American president than they offered up to him.
To varying degrees, all four Asian governments were looking for beefed-up military and diplomatic commitments from Mr Obama — in view of the rise of China and, in the case of South Korea and Japan, the threat from North Korea, too. Japan and the Philippines feel most threatened by China. They are both in direct confrontation with an increasingly assertive China over disputed islands and shoals in, respectively, the East China Sea and the South China Sea.
Japan and the Philippines are treaty allies of America, and both got the extra support they felt they deserved. Japan welcomed Mr Obama’s unequivocal declaration that the Senkaku islands — which the Chinese call the Diaoyus — would be covered by the bilateral Treaty of Mutual Co-operation and Security in the event of an armed attack on them.
America still claims not to be taking sides on the ultimate question of the uninhabited islands’ sovereignty. But that will not stop it supporting Japan’s administration of them.
This was the first time a sitting president had made America’s commitment explicit and was intended to reassure the government of Japan’s prime minister, Shinzo Abe, that America would indeed come to Japan’s aid in the event of a serious Chinese incursion.
Likewise the Philippine president, Benigno Aquino, welcomed the signing of a new ten-year defence pact. This will give America a significant military presence there for the first time since its forces left bases at Clark and Subic Bay in the early 1990s.
As for Mr Obama’s two-day trip to South Korea, the most substantive outcome was also military in nature. Under current arrangements, South Korean troops would come under American operational control if there were a war (South Korea retains peacetime control of its forces). That had been due to change in December 2015, when South Korea was scheduled to take back control of its forces in case of war.
Last year, however, the South Korean government, worried about its military preparedness, requested a postponement after North Korea conducted a third nuclear test. During his current tour, Mr Obama agreed to delay the transfer. He assured President Park Geun-hye that the United States stood “shoulder-to-shoulder” with South Korea over North Korean provocations.
In return for these reassurances to his Asian friends, Mr Obama had hoped to bring home progress on his cherished Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade deal, a new block that would encompass 12 countries on both sides of the Pacific (though not China). But the TPP remains deeply unpopular with voters and vested interests in several parts of Asia.
In Japan and Malaysia Mr Obama’s hosts preferred to stand at arm’s length rather than shoulder-to-shoulder. No agreement was reached in Japan, despite frantic negotiations and earlier commitments from Mr Abe. Japan still refuses to give way by lowering tariffs on five “sacred” areas of agriculture, including beef and rice. (America, for its part, wants to maintain high tariffs on imported pickup trucks.)
Mr Obama also left Malaysia empty-handed. Just as the Japanese fear what TPP will do to heavily protected bits of their economy, so ruling Malaysian politicians know that TPP membership could spell the end of their affirmative-action policies favouring the ethnic-Malay majority over Malaysians of Chinese and Indian extraction.
So although Mr Obama and the Malaysian prime minister, Najib Razak, agreed to strengthen bilateral ties in several areas, trade was not one of them. As in Japan, the two sides were rock solid on the one thing diplomats everywhere approve of: the need for more talks.
Everywhere he went, Mr Obama trod carefully in his public remarks about China. He appeared anxious to avoid causing greater instability in the region by making America out to be China’s enemy. He warned against attempts to resolve disputes by “intimidation or force”.
But he also insisted that America embraced China’s rise. “Our goal is not to counter China. Our goal is not to contain China,” he said. Most Chinese media appeared unconvinced.
China Daily, an English-language newspaper, accused America of “ganging up with troublemaking allies”. The government response, however, was more muted. Officials in Beijing perhaps calculated that, with pressing distractions in Europe, Mr Obama’s mind was — and will remain for some time — on matters other than the pivot.
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