President Barack Obama's travels in Asia the past week were billed as reaffirmation of America's commitment to stay focused on the world's most dynamic region - in both the security and economic spheres. To his hosts, notably Japan and the Philippines, what was sought was unambiguous assurance that they could trust United States security guarantees in their widening disputes with China. There was nary a concession to what this could imply in the long-term for Asia as a whole.
But Mr Obama and his inner circle have been signalling they are concerned about adding depth to the US presence in Asia. This could best be achieved by merging trade influence with security linkages through treaty ties or placement of military assets in friendly countries, such as Australia. Both aspects are important. But in the exercise of realpolitik, military posturing is often for demonstration effect while trade is the objective. Countries have in the past gone to war to force trade routes open, rightly or wrongly.
This is why it gets difficult to make out what exactly Mr Obama's tour has accomplished, aside from the protocol of making good on promises to visit. Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe was happy with mention in the communique about US treaty obligations in the event the islands contest with China turned violent. The Philippines would now feel more secure having US troops and military hardware on its territory, after having ejected American forces from Subic Bay and Clark Airbase during a time when the pull towards self-sufficiency was strong.
This decidedly cannot be the sum total of America's interest in Asia. Mr Obama was aware that in honouring security obligations, he could not give Beijing cause to charge that America is trying to put China in a box - for instance, by taking sides in legacy disputes. There has to be more to a "rebalance" than force projection. This is where the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) is pivotal, even after discounting the notion that a Pacific trade bloc without China is a contradiction in terms.
Failure to obtain agreement from Japan and Malaysia was in the circumstances the low point of Mr Obama's Asia trip. It could be a setback to his ambitions to construct a deeper partnership with Asia. The US also is facing difficulties with Australia over a provision which gives companies the right to sue sovereign states for compensation if their policies undermined their profitability. This clause has been a hurdle. As it stands, the TPP has struck a speed bump. Since his 2008 election, the weight of expectations has been a cross Mr Obama had to bear. He has often found it a struggle, and this was demonstrated anew in Asia.
This article was published on April 30 in The Straits Times.
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