Scoring Obama's 'Reassurance' Tour of Asia

With tensions in the region running high, is the president's pivot or rebalance to Asia back on track?

Now that the fanfare has died down and Air Force One has made its way back across the Pacific, the question begs: how successful was President Barack Obama's recent visit to East Asian capitals in Japan, South Korea, Malaysia, and the Philippines, and what does it portend for the future?

Apropos of that question, the logical start point is to consider the Obama administration's objectives for the trip, and the degree to which they were met. According to statements emanating from Washington, the primary objective of Obama's trip was to reinforce American commitment to the region by building on the political, security, and economic prongs of its rebalance strategy. With this in mind, let's consider the achievements.

Meeting Stated Objectives

Obama's April visit to East Asia was in many respects to "make up" for the cancellation of an earlier trip scheduled for October 2013, where he was to attend APEC, ASEAN, and East Asia Summit meetings. Given the consternation that the cancellation evoked across the region, the fact that Obama so quickly rescheduled his trip—his sixth to the region as president—was itself a huge boost for a region hankering for clear signs of Washington's commitment.

The objective of reassuring security partners was for the most part met through several key statements and initiatives. Despite their reportedly cool personal relationship, Obama's reaffirmation in Tokyo that the Senkaku islands—subject of acrimonious dispute between Japan and China—are covered under the U.S.-Japan Alliance brought a discernibly warm smile to Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's face. To be sure, both his secretaries of state had previously already stated this. Nevertheless, the fact that President Obama saw fit to reiterate it in Tokyo must surely have been a welcomed boost for Japan. His assurances to South Korea in relation to North Korean aggression were equally welcomed. In Manila, Obama put his stamp on a ten-year, U.S.-Philippine military pact that would provide much needed deterrence capability for a government at the receiving end of Chinese assertiveness over competing South China Sea claims. With three of his four host governments having suffered humanitarian tragedies in recent months, the visit proved an opportune time for President Obama to reinforce longstanding American commitment to provide humanitarian relief in disasters.

From a broader Southeast Asian perspective, the visits to Kuala Lumpur and Manila also provided much needed substance to the "rebalance within the rebalance," where greater attention is to be given to Southeast Asia in Washington's East Asia policy. Nevertheless, President Obama's strong support for arbitration on competing South China Sea claims, no doubt referring to Manila's submission to the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea against Beijing, is likely to complicate China's commitment to ASEAN's objective of promptly concluding a Code of Conduct. More to the point, notwithstanding Obama's reassurances that the strengthening of these security ties were not targeted at Beijing, the hawks in China will interpret this visit precisely in such a light.

As for economic objectives, these were centered squarely on the need to make progress on the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). Specifically, Washington hoped to secure commitments from Japan and Malaysia, two of the twelve partners in the TPP. Yet because of public opinion and opposition from key sectors of the respective local economies, securing the buy-in from these two countries was always going to be difficult. In this regard, President Obama came up short. While both Obama and Abe released statements that the United States and Japan would coordinate closely in multilateral financial and economic institutions to advance trade liberalization, the fact of the matter is that Obama left Tokyo without the assurances he sought regarding the latter's willingness to push the TPP through against domestic lobbies. The same scenario played out in Malaysia, where despite the momentous occasion of the first visit by a sitting U.S. President since Lyndon Johnson, Prime Minister Najib Razak was unable to provide similar assurances on the TPP, given his weak domestic political position.

Looking Ahead