Obama's Asia trip: manifestation of its own limits

Obama's Asia trip: manifestation of its own limits

On Tuesday, US President Barack Obama finished his four-country Asia trip. The trip was evenly divided between Northeast Asia (Japan and South Korea) and Southeast Asia (Malaysia and the Philippines). With the exception of a new 10-year bilateral defence cooperation deal with the Philippines, the visits were uneventful. The attention within the United States for the Asia trip was also comparatively low. While Obama was in Asia, the crisis in Ukraine continues to dominate international news.

The uneventfulness and lack of attention within the United States is indicative of the challenges that the Obama administration has not only in its "rebalance" to the Asia-Pacific region, but more broadly in its foreign policy. Simply put, it was indicative of how the Obama administration, perceived to be politically weakened at home and abroad, has been reactive and may be limited in its capacity to lead.

Obama's Asia trip was planned to reassure US commitment to strategic rebalance toward the Asia-Pacific. As National Security Advisor Susan Rice said on April 18, the trip was intended for the United States "to affirm our commitment to a rules-based order in the region."

Indeed, it is fair to say that the trip was planned as a direct response to the concerns expressed by the countries in the Asia-Pacific region about fleeing US strategic attention from the Asia-Pacific region. When Hillary Rodham Clinton and her close aide Kurt Campbell both left the government at the end of the Obama administration's first term, Asians have felt that they lost the champion for US rebalance to Asia. More than a year into the second term, their concerns have not been alleviated.

In November last year, National Security Advisor Rice's Asia policy speech left many in Asia questioning what she meant when she discussed the United States operationalizing "a new model of major power relations" with China. Obama's trip was supposed to ease these concerns, reassuring his administration's commitment to rebalancing toward Asia.

However, this trip came when the Obama administration, entering its second year in the second term, is quickly losing its leverage both at home and abroad. Domestically, the latest opinion poll released by The Washington Post on Tuesday indicates that President Obama's approval rating has hit its all-time low at 41 per cent.

Trade Promotion Authority (TPA)-critical for President Obama to have the US Congress grant it to him in order to conclude the TPP negotiations-is unlikely to get approved at least until the November midterm elections. On the foreign policy front, although many recognise there may be few good policy options, the US response to Syria's alleged use of chemical weapons and last month's Russian annexation of Crimea have reinforced the perception that Washington has lost its ability to lead in crafting a response to international crisis.

If the success of President Obama's trip is defined as showing up in Asia, meeting his counterparts to deliver the message that they need from the US, it was a successful trip. In Japan, Abe got almost everything he wanted from Obama's visit-making it a state visit, explicit statement in regards to the applicability of Article 5 of the US-Japan Treaty of Mutual Cooperation and Security to the Senkaku Islands, and strong endorsement of Abe's national security policy agenda. Obama even allowed his host to boast that he and Obama were successful in establishing a close personal relationship.

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