Obama makes gains in Asia, but more work to do

Obama makes gains in Asia, but more work to do
US President Barack Obama walks from Marine One to Air Force One for his departure home from Ninoy Aquino International Airport in Manila on April 29, 2014.

MANILA - Barack Obama's Asia-Pacific legacy is now taking shape, but he has work to do to complete a genuine rebalancing of US power to the region that goes beyond rhetoric.

The US leader ended his four-nation Asian tour in the Philippines Tuesday, after spending a week telling China not to use coercion in maritime disputes and reassuring allies that US security guarantees are genuine.

He made it clear that America's defence alliance with Japan did cover disputed islands known as the Senkakus to Toyko and the Diaoyus to China.

He clinched a 10-year defence pact with the Philippines, similar to one already agreed with Australia, that will put US forces close to the volatile geopolitical currents of the South China Sea.

Obama also became the first American president to visit Malaysia for nearly 50 years - formally ushering the country into the US orbit after its decades of outspoken anti-Americanism.

Malaysia's evolution complements the administration's move in pushing reform in Myanmar and drawing the once junta-led nation away from China.

Senior US officials said Obama privately pressed Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to consider the explosive regional political impact of visiting war shrines - particularly the impact on relations with US ally South Korea.

But despite administration claims that Obama engineered a significant breakthrough, he has yet to close a deal on opening Japan's auto and agricultural markets.

That left a 12-nation Trans Pacific Partnership trade deal in limbo.

Obama needs the TPP to take the Asia pivot beyond a reshuffling of military assets and to claim a piece of the region's dynamic future for the slowly recovering US economy.

Asian doubts over whether Obama can get any trade deal through Congress are also contributing to the uncertainty.

While his rebalancing strategy is premised in part on exploiting the anxiety of regional states about China's rise, Obama also needs to keep tensions with the Asian giant under control.

While warning China over its conduct in territorial disputes in the East and South China Seas, which US officials privately fear could erupt into shooting incidents sooner if not later, Obama was careful not to antagonise Beijing.

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