Obama in Asia: Words and Deeds

April 30, 2014 | 9:02 am
Gregory Kulacki
China Project Manager

Just before President Obama departed for Asia the Senate Foreign Relations Committee issued a report recommending the United States take steps to alter the perception that the current effort to increase U.S. engagement in Asia is “primarily a military strategy.” The Committee recommended the President increase attention to the “civilian components” of U.S. Asia policy in order to persuade observers that “the policy is about broadening U.S. engagement, not containing China.”

President Obama addresses U.S. forces in South Korea during his recent trip to Asia.

President Obama addresses U.S. forces in South Korea during his recent trip to Asia.

The President and his advisors tried to use language that suggested the visit was not part of an ongoing U.S. effort to contain China. But the President’s agenda suggested otherwise. He committed the United States to defend Japanese administrative rights to islands claimed by both Japan and China, he lent his support to Prime Minister Abe’s efforts to change Japan’s pacifist constitution, and he signed a new “Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement” with the Philippines.

When explaining the new agreement an Obama administration official told reporters,

the Philippines are involved in this shift in their military, from internal security missions to external security missions.  And we’ll be working with them about how best we can help them build up their capability to meet what they call credible minimum deterrence.”

In response to a reporter’s question suggesting the “external” threat the Philippines needed to deter was China, the official cut him off in mid-sentence.

“Well, we’re not doing this because of China. We’re doing this because we have a longstanding alliance partner.  They’re interested in stepping up our military-to-military engagement.  There have been a variety of instances, as Ben pointed out, like Typhoon Yolanda, where it became clear that an enhanced rotational presence, a legal and policy framework for the U.S. military to work with their Philippine counterparts was something that was needed by the Philippine government.”

No one believed him.

The President of the United States did not travel to the Philippines to sign a new defense agreement to help its military develop a “credible minimum deterrent” against typhoons.

President Obama often mentions the “new model of relations” he is seeking with China, and he told the Japanese press that both nations “have to resist the danger of slipping into conflict.” But his visit focused almost exclusively on the military steps his administration is taking to address that danger.  The Chinese Foreign Ministry noted it would be paying attention to what the Obama administration does, as well as what it says, when assessing whether those steps are aimed at China. It is unlikely to find dissembling comments about the military aspects of the President’s Asia policy reassuring.

The interests of the United States in Asia would be better served by offering a more honest, constructive and balanced mix of words and deeds that both China and its neighbors found encouraging. That would be easier if the President took the Senate’s advice, and used his influence in the region to shift the discussion about Asia’s future away from intractable historical disputes that an earlier generation of Asian leaders wisely set aside in order to focus on increasing economic opportunity, improving public diplomacy and facilitating regional cooperation.