Barack Obama’s weeklong visit to Asia took in Japan, South Korea, Malaysia and the Philippines. His trip was supposedly focused on economic issues and in particular on enhancing trade links across the Pacific. But in the end strategy, and particularly defence, was most prominent. The visit must be seen in the context of the never ending struggle for regional balance between the great powers.
Obama’s “Asia pivot” over the past two years was two-fold. On the economic front it meant rejuvenating the negotiations on the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). And on the strategic front it meant counterbalancing Chinese military expansion through defence cooperation with other countries in East Asia.
Progress on TPP has been slow; negotiations are likely to drag on throughout the year. It seems even a presidential visit couldn’t speed things up.
But on the defence front Obama has been more assertive, not missing the chance to clarify US strategic objectives in the region. The best way to identify the strategic motive behind his visit? Look for the glaring hole in the itinerary: China.
It is easy to see why, for America, China represents not just an economic rival but also a military worry. Its defence expenditure has doubled in the last decade: only the US now has a larger defence budget.
This has spurred a regional arms race, with Vietnam and the Philippines among the countries increasing their budgets. Even Japan has reversed its declining defence spending, following tension with China last year. Asia-Pacific is the only part of the world where defence expenditure has continued to rise since 2009.
For the US, the stakes are high. Japan and South Korea, its two major allies, are both under the US security umbrella and yet both face nuclear armed rivals: China and North Korea.
Japan’s uneasy relationship with China has been aggravated by a standoff over a group of small islands claimed by both countries. Prime minister Shinzo Abe has boosted the defence budget and ensured his military is more prepared for a possible war. He has also attempted to force defence partnerships with China-wary countries in the region such as the closer military ties with India.
During his visit Obama encouraged Abe to look for a peaceful and diplomatic solution to the island dispute. But on the other hand he clearly stated the disputed territory falls within the area covered by the US-Japan Security Alliance and that the US would protect it. Apparently America is no mood to retreat.
This firm stance has been noticed and replicated elsewhere in the region, where those nations who depend on the US for security have been looking at China’s military and feeling increasingly anxious. Obama sent out another reassuring signal by visiting South Korea amid heightened activity at North Korea’s nuclear test site. And what about the Philippines? It’s also involved in a territorial dispute with China, and it has every reason to feel increasingly nervous. There, US just signed a ten-year defence agreement.
If this all means action rather than merely words, it represents a welcome shift in US foreign policy. Despite Asia-Pacific’s obvious strategic and economic importance, policy towards the region has appeared muddled.
This perception has been further reinforced by US involvement in the Middle East, Afghanistan & Pakistan, the ongoing Syrian crises and the latest stand-off with Russia over Ukrainian. No country can be everywhere at once. Not even the US. Dealing with crises elsewhere in the world has meant diverting its diplomatic and strategic resources away from Asia-Pacific.
But Obama’s very first stop in Japan, where he reaffirmed the importance of the US-Japan Security Alliance, suggests that US is motivated by maintaining a balance of power in the region. The last thing America wants is for China to become the dominant military power.
Officials in Beijing were paying attention. China’s state run daily has indeed concluded that the US president’s visit was aimed at containing China. Obama himself disagrees with this assertion, but his visit is a clear indication that the US does not want to leave any doubt among its Asian friends that the US is weak or might roll back from the region.
The US may face challenges on many fronts, but China remains the key rival. It is, after all, the only inevitable great power of the 21st century. History suggests that hegemons have never given up, and Obama’s Asian trip was an expression of the US' power balancing strategy in this crucial region.