In the latest manifestation of the administration’s “rebalancing strategy” to Asia, US President Barack Obama will go on a week-long tour to the region on Tuesday to bolster some of Washington’s closest friends and allies
Administration officials hailed the president’s visit to Japan, South Korea, Malaysia and the Philippines as a chance to underscore Washington’s long-term commitment to the Asia-Pacific, the most economically and socially dynamic region of the world against the backdrop of China’s growing assertiveness.
“This is not political expediency. We are in for the long haul”, Deputy National Security Advisor Ben Rhodes told foreign journalists in Washington on Monday, claiming that the administration is “not distracted by Ukraine or Syria” in its focus on Asia.
The trip comes after Obama missed a scheduled visit to the continent in the fall, including stops at two regional summits in Southeast Asia, during the partial US government shutdown.
On the trip, Obama will meet with each of the leaders of the four countries. Two of the stops – in Japan and the Philippines – will be official state visits, meaning Obama will attend formal dinners with Emperor Akihito in Japan and President Benigno Aquino in the Philippines.
The trip will also include tours of the Meiji shrine in Tokyo and the National Mosque in Kuala Lumpur, meetings with business leaders in Japan and Korea, and a look at a new electronic vehicle in the Philippines called “the Comet.” Obama will also lay a wreath at the national war memorial in Seoul.
Obama’s visit comes at a time of ongoing regional tensions, particularly with regard to North Korea and territorial disputes involving China, and the White House believes the trip offers a chance for the US “to affirm our commitment to a rule-based order in the region.”
“Our ability to sustain regional political cooperation, especially trilateral policy coordination with Japan and South Korea, to put pressure on Pyongyang’s nuclear ambitions remains critical”, says Sheila Smith, Senior Fellow for Japan Studies at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a Washington-based think tank.
Leaders of the four nations need the United States to serve as a counterweight to China’s efforts to assert territorial control both at sea and in the air, experts believe.
The air-defense identification zone that China established in November, for example, overlaps with some of Japan’s, South Korea’s and Taiwan’s airspace. Malaysia and the Philippines, meanwhile, have clashed with China over maritime boundaries in the South China Sea.
So far, the promised transfer of US warships and other military resources to the Pacific has been incremental, and limited by Pentagon budget cuts. This resulted in growing anxiety among US allies in the region from Japan to Malaysia.
But White House advisors say the US remains locked into plans to bolster its military presence and beef up bilateral relations and regional alliances, as there is a significant demand for US leadership in that region.
The president’s visit will be his third since he and then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton outlined a lofty vision in the fall of 2011. America would move away from the long, costly wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and into what Clinton dubbed “America’s Pacific century.”
In addition, Obama will be the first US President to visit Malaysia since Lyndon Johnson in 1966. Further underlining the importance of Asia for the administration is the fact that both Secretary of State John Kerry and Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel have already made trips to the region this year – and Obama will be back for the APEC summit in the fall.