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The American 'Bear' gets Bullish on Asia!


Barack Obama has to walk through Crossfire during his Asia visit in late April. amidst rising tensions over territorial disputes in the region, he needs to choose his words wisely
AMIR HOSSAIN | Issue Dated: March 2, 2014, New Delhi
Tags : Obama | Hillary Clinton | America’s Pacific Century | World Economic Forum |

In a globalised era, sound foreign policies and stable international relations are central to developmental – internal and external - economics taking the right shape for nations. Unilateral acts are no longer appropriate or conducive for high-growth atmospheres across nations – big or small, emerging or stagnating. [Think global trade.] The so-considered unchallenged Superpower of the 21st century, the United States, is a case in point. The nation has tried to balance relationships with almost every government. Tried. As such, up until the first few months of 2012, its mind was majorly preoccupied by matters in the Middle East and Europe. But with the passage of each night in recent months, the following day seems to be heralding the start of new US-Asia multilateral engagement strategies originating from Obamaland. It’s clearly in a ‘return to Asia’ mood for now. And the 44th (and current) President of the United States is quite public about his nation’s foreign policy considerations.

Obama’s office has announced his visit to four Asian countries – Japan, South Korea, Malaysia and Philippines – in late April to rebalance his nation’s relations with potentially emerging Asian powerhouses. But his visit could only raise further and bigger questions on how the current conflicts between various Asian nations will shape out. Will the US President’s stopping over in these nations increase the intensity of the ongoing tensions across Japan and South Korea?

Truth is - the Obama Administration has paid enough attention to US’ Asian connection from the very start. In the past, we’ve even heard him express complete disapproval of the actions and words of former President George W. Bush and his government in underestimating Asia and ignoring meetings with government leaders of various South Asian nations. But while Obama’s visit to Asia comes as a proactive step on America’s part, it is to be remembered that his visit to this region has already been cancelled twice in the past four years – once in last fall due to a (now historic) government shutdown and another time in 2010 due to matters pertaining to domestic politics. If he can help not miss this time, Obama will do his nation great service in making America appear a friend to various nations – one of whom could become the new engine of growth in times to come. And remembering that it was Obama who took the initiative as the first US President to attend the East Asian summit (held in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia on 14 December 2005) and later on declared himself as US’ first “Pacific President”, we know he won’t miss his Air Force One flight if he can help.

After Hillary Clinton’s article titled ‘America’s Pacific Century’ published by Foreign Policy in late 2011, ‘pivot’, or ‘rebalance’ towards Asia became a popular buzzword across American policymakers’ boardrooms. She clearly highlighted that “Open markets in Asia provide the United States with unprecedented opportunities for investment, trade, and access to cutting-edge technology. Our economic recovery at home will depend on exports and the ability of American firms to tap into the vast and growing consumer base of Asia. Strategically, maintaining peace and security across the Asia-Pacific is increasingly crucial to global progress, whether through defending freedom of navigation in the South China Sea, countering the proliferation efforts of North Korea, or ensuring transparency in the military activities of the region’s key players.” So, Obama’s trip will be an extended version of an effort to rebalance America’s relationship with Asia. Some would even read his intentions along the lines of trying to live an American ‘Pacific Dream’ (as termed by the US Secretary of State, John Kerry, who said during his Japan trip in April last that “our [America’s] Pacific Dream is to translate our strongest values into an unprecedented security, economic, and social cooperation”.

Obama’s late awakening has however found many awake in the circle of critics too. Dr. Kurt M. Campbell, Assistant Secretary of State. US Bureau of East Asian and Pacific Affairs (who was influential in helping advance the US-China policy affair and was a key to the historic normalisation of ties between US and Burma), has poured scorn on him for his delayed thought and action thereof. He highlighted that every country in the Asia-Pacific region (where dominant issues of the 21st century will be decided) wants to have a better relationship with both China as well as the United States. Unfortunately, the Obama Administration is still in the nascent stages of engagement with them.

This time, Barack Obama has to walk into crossfire of territorial disputes among China and its neighbours. The tension between China and Japan over the East China Sea (known as the Senkaku in Japan and Diaoyu in China) is escalating by the day and there seems no cooperative end to the situation in the very near term. Diplomatic ties between these two nations have reached to the worst levels during the last two years. Both nations have become impatient over several issues like territorial disputes, claims and counter-claims over history and re-emerging nationalism. Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s visit to the controversial Yasukuni Shrine – a site built to honour war criminals amongst Japan's war dead in the last December has strained the Sino-Japanese relation further. Observers claim that China is trying its best to use all powers to gain a strong foothold in the East China Sea region, primarily because it is a destination popular for rich natural resources – especially oil and gas. China and Japan even got expressive about their emotions at the World Economic Forum in Davos a few days back. Shockingly, Japan's PM compared the current sour relationship between his government and China with the Anglo-German tension in the run up to the First World War. Abe warned China to contain its aggression and limit “Military expansion in Asia”. He also added that “If peace and stability were shaken in Asia, the knock-on effect for the entire world would be enormous.” And as if offering a verbal retaliation, China was not silent. The Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi said that the island dispute was “Created by the Japanese side.” The Chinese authorities present compared the Japanese with the German Nazis. One cannot deny the fact that the Asia Pacific region has become “The most militarised region in the world” in recent years. Forget China and Japan, even the Japan-South Korea relationships have soured in recent months due to difference of opinion over occupied territories.

Every time he has flown to Asia, Obama has tried to keep China at the top of his ‘To do’ directory. Even Hillary Clinton clearly stated in her last Asia trip, “We see the Chinese economic relationship as essential to our own country, so we're going to consult and work in a way that will be mutually beneficial.” But the troubling news is that, of late, even the much nurtured Sino-American relationship has not remained as rosy as it was in the past. US has criticised China over its move to impose new rules on airspace during the ongoing territorial dispute with Japan. Openly. On the other hand, media in China has criticised US for maintaining “Double standards” on terrorism and being unsuccessful in ensuring the safety of Chinese diplomats. Above all, the intensity of cold war for status-quo power between them has only grown over the time. From disputes over human rights violations that started between the two nations in 2008 to the current times when much remains unresolved between the two over China’s territorial disputes with neighbouring nations, Obama certainly needs to have a well-worded speech ready for Asian diplomats this time.

It will be difficult to foretell whether Obama’s Asia trip will go down in history as memorable. We may move one step closer to the formation of the Trans-Pacific Strategic Economic Partnership Agreement or we may never see another US President step on Chinese soil for another decade! There is no doubt that Obama will put his best foot forward to cool down the heat in the Asian government quarters while projecting US as everybody’s ally – but he could even end up angering many..

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Issue Dated: Feb 5, 2017