President Obama’s Trip to Asia

President Barack Obama will visit Japan, South Korea, Malaysia, and the Philippines April 23–29 in what is essentially a “do-over” after a previously scheduled visit to two regional summits was canceled last fall because of the budget impasse in Washington. The central aim is to reaffirm a commitment made in 2011 to “pivot” or rebalance U.S. foreign policy toward the Asia-Pacific region.

Q1: What does the president need to accomplish?

The good news is that public opinion polls show the American people generally recognize that Asia is the most important region to the United States. The president is also quite popular in Asia, and most countries in the region welcome U.S. diplomatic engagement, forward military presence, as evidenced by plans to reallocate air and naval assets to the region, and U.S. leadership on regional trade in efforts such as the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) negotiations. But there also is a narrative in the region questioning American staying power and the credibility of American commitments, stemming from the failure to enforce the “red line” in Syria, a relatively muted response to developments in Crimea, U.S. budget cuts, stalled TPP negotiations, and uncertainty about who at senior levels is driving Asia policy in the Obama administration’s second term. And there is confusion regarding the administration’s own narrative about the region. President Xi Jinping of China has put forth the idea of a “new model of great power relations” between China and the United States, which several senior administration officials have embraced. The problem is that particularly in Japan, but also in other parts of Asia, that sounds like a U.S.-China condominium. The president has to find a way to articulate U.S. regional priorities and strengthen cooperation with allies while not inviting tension with Beijing. This is a tricky balancing act, and the president’s narrative on Asia will be the focal point of a trip largely devoid of concrete “deliverables” that generally anchor presidential diplomacy.

Q2: Japan?

This will be a state visit including audiences with Emperor Akihito and Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. The president hosted Abe in Washington back in February 2013, and the two leaders have had short meetings on the margins of various multilateral gatherings since then. But this is the first time they will have a chance to really get to know each other and talk through issues, and that is important. President Obama should express support for economic and defense reform initiatives under way in Japan that strengthen its leadership role in the region. Bilateral trade negotiations, launched when Japan officially joined TPP a year ago, have become bogged down over tariff reductions, and the bet is against the two sides reaching an agreement prior to the president’s arrival in Japan; however, some progress might be announced to demonstrate momentum. The two governments are reviewing bilateral guidelines for defense cooperation this year, another important theme, and the leaders could address this and other developments in a joint statement reaffirming the importance of the U.S.-Japan alliance to regional stability. South Korea–Japan relations remain tenuous, but the president organized a trilateral meeting with Abe and Park Geun-hye during the recent Nuclear Security Summit in The Hague and could reiterate the importance of cooperation between America’s two closest allies in the region.

Q3: South Korea?

There are no policy deliverables for the stop in Seoul, but the visit is important for three reasons. The first is the timing in terms of carrying forward the theme of U.S.-Japan–Republic of Korea (ROK) cooperation after the recent summit in The Hague. The Seoul visit also can demonstrate the importance of U.S.-ROK defense cooperation and deterrence to disabuse North Korea of the notion that it can pull off a fait accompli action akin to what transpired in Crimea, a concern in South Korean policy circles. The president will be there a week after the conclusion of annual U.S.-ROK military exercises, during which the North Koreans tested or launched about 90 short-range and antiship missiles and conducted live-fire artillery exercises aimed at South Korean waters. We should expect to see a politically powerful message about deterrence and readiness by Presidents Obama and Park as part of Obama’s itinerary. The bilateral summit is also significant because there is a lot of homework for the alliance, including the planned transition of wartime operational control over ROK forces to South Korea by 2015, negotiations over a bilateral civil nuclear cooperation agreement, implementing the bilateral free trade agreement known as KORUS, and Seoul’s interest in joining TPP. The two leaders could also welcome the recent conclusion of a Special Measures Agreement addressing cost-sharing for U.S. forces in South Korea. One can also anticipate an extended discussion on China. President Park will likely explain her ideas for strategic engagement with China but emphasize that this does not come at the expense of U.S.-ROK relations, and President Obama could reciprocate by clarifying how he approaches Xi Jinping’s proposed “new model of great power relations.”

Q4: Malaysia and the Philippines?

The Southeast Asia leg of the trip constitutes the “do-over” as the president skipped two important multilateral summits—the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) forum and the East Asia Summit—held last October in Indonesia and Brunei, respectively. No U.S. president has visited Malaysia since Lyndon Johnson in 1966, so that stop is quite significant. U.S.-Malaysia relations have improved in recent years, and the president and his counterpart, Prime Minister Najib Razak, will note developments in economic, security, and people-to-people ties. Malaysia sent troops and doctors to Afghanistan in 2010, a rather dramatic development for a Muslim country. Malaysia is a party to the TPP negotiations, and the two leaders will likely focus extensively on trade and investment issues. Maritime security will also feature in the discussions, as Malaysia and the Philippines are disputants with China over territory in the South China Sea. The fate of Malaysian Airlines flight 370 might also come up in the context of enhancing cooperation between the two countries.

The visit to the Philippines will focus more narrowly on security issues, particularly as the two countries recently completed negotiations over an enhanced bilateral defense agreement that would allow U.S. troop rotations through the Philippines. The administration also has stepped up military aid to the Philippines, including coast guard vessels to enhance maritime surveillance capabilities in the South China Sea, which will be a key topic of discussion with President Benigno Aquino. The Philippines recently requested a ruling from the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague on China’s sovereignty claims in the South China Sea and would like them declared invalid under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). China has become increasingly assertive in defending its claims, most notably in 2012 when it took over Scarborough Shoal, a very fertile fishing area also claimed by the Philippines.

Q5: What will China look for during the trip?

China is not a stop on this trip but will feature prominently during all of the president’s discussions. Chinese officials are confused about how the administration views U.S.-China relations in that Vice President Joe Biden effectively endorsed President Xi’s new model of great power relations during his visit to China in December last year, but that was followed by harsher statements from some administration officials. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, Assistant Secretary of State Danny Russel, and others have been more forthright recently in criticizing Chinese behavior in the South China Sea and elsewhere, and Beijing will be watching closely to see if President Obama will speak in this manner. In anticipation of U.S. support for regional allies, China has reiterated its core interests including territorial sovereignty and integrity to demonstrate its resolve. The administration has no interest in making this trip look like an anti-China containment tour, and the president therefore has to balance support for allies against a desire for a constructive relationship with Beijing. How he chooses to characterize U.S.-China relations will shed light on this balancing act.

Q6: Can the president deliver a reassuring message on trade?

Economics is not a central focus of this trip, but TPP is at the heart of the rebalancing strategy to the region and therefore warrants attention. Asians welcome U.S. economic engagement to balance the diplomatic and security dimensions of the rebalance strategy. Asia is an important source of growth and jobs, and the United States also has a strategic interest in helping to shape the rules and norms for regional economic integration. TPP is now the center of economic rule making in the region and the world, and U.S. leadership is therefore essential. Every stop on this trip has a TPP nexus beginning with Japan, which together with the United States contributes about 75–80 percent of the GDP among the 12 countries negotiating TPP. Malaysia is also a party to TPP, and South Korea and the Philippines are first in line to join in a second tranche once the initial negotiations are concluded. But the action right now is between the United States and Japan where bilateral trade negotiations taking place under the auspices of TPP are bogged down over market access in sensitive areas such as agriculture and automobiles. A U.S.-Japan agreement would have a dynamic effect on the overall TPP negotiations, and most outstanding issues in TPP will likely fall away once Washington and Tokyo settle their differences. But failure to reach a bilateral agreement in advance of the president’s trip would be a missed opportunity in the near term to reinvigorate U.S.-Japan economic ties and regional economic integration.

Victor Cha is senior adviser and holds the Korea Chair at CSIS. Michael Green is senior vice president for Asia and holds the Japan Chair at CSIS. Christopher Johnson is senior adviser and holds the Freeman Chair in China Studies at CSIS. Matthew Goodman holds the William E. Simon Chair in Political Economy at CSIS. Murray Hiebert is senior fellow with the Sumitro Chair for Southeast Asia Studies at CSIS.

Critical Questions
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Victor Cha
Senior Vice President for Asia and Korea Chair