Obama’s Asian Journey: Prospects for US Policy

President Barack Obama’s trip to Asia was a mixed bag of achievements and disappointments. This was the assessment of a panel of experts at a recent public event on “Obama’s Asian Journey: Prospects for US Policy,” co-hosted by the Sigur Center for Asian Studies and the Asia Society. Speaking on the panel, Deepa M. Ollapally, Alasdair Bowie, Gregg A. Brazinsky and Mike M. Mochizuki assessed the outcomes of Obama’s visit to India, Indonesia, South Korea and Japan, respectively:

INDIA

Obama’s visit to India was a case of “low expectations, high results.”

Concrete gains for India included: clear support for a permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council; lifting of nearly all embargos on dual-use technologies; and U.S. commitment to work toward India’s inclusion in a number of nuclear regimes, including the Nuclear Suppliers Group and Missile Technology Control Regime.

More importantly, the visit marked a shift in U.S.-India relations from the narrow, sectoral engagement of the past, to a truly broad spectrum relationship. Obama is the first US President to view relations with India as a multi-layered partnership:

  • On military cooperation, until recently there was no real strategic or defense relationship between the two countries. Today, the U.S. has more military exercises with India than any other country, even when India is not a military ally.
  • On economic relations, Obama’s visit laid the groundwork for expanded U.S. business interests. With the lifting of dual-use technology restrictions, a huge sector has now opened to US companies. In addition, India’s infrastructure needs are expected to exceed 1 trillion dollars in the next five years.
  • Soft power, embodied in a shared commitment to democratic values and strong civil societies, is a unique dimension of the US-India relationship that was especially highlighted during this trip. For example, the two sides agreed to share best practices in improving democratic accountability with the signing of the US-India Open Government Dialogue.

Nevertheless, despite these achievements, there is a “means-end problem” in the US-India relationship. The two countries have common regional and global objectives – for instance, on Iran and Afghanistan – but disagree on the short- to medium-term strategies and tactics to achieve those shared goals.

INDONESIA

During this brief visit of less than 24 hours, the US and Indonesia signed several formal agreements on military-to-military ties, higher education, and green technologies. Indonesia has not been a major market for US exports, but opportunities loom on the horizon, especially with big-ticket items such as nuclear power, commercial airplanes, locomotives and military equipment. However, this trip did not see any significant achievements on trade.

Obama’s visit to Indonesia was much anticipated, having previously been cancelled twice, but overall the visit did not mark any significant change in US-Indonesia relations.

Informally, Obama’s visit gave him the opportunity to gauge the extent of China’s influence in Indonesia. It is noteworthy that at their joint press conference, Obama’s comment on China’s role in the global economy was followed by a quick retort by Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, who said “China has been a good friend to Indonesia.” This suggests that Yudhoyono was at pains to signal to China that although the American president was right by his side, the importance of China to Indonesia was by no means forgotten.

KOREA

In contrast with India, this segment of Obama’s trip was characterized by “high expectations, low results.”

Economic rather than security issues took center stage in this visit. The U.S. and South Korea had hoped Obama’s visit would allow them to conclude a free trade agreement, but in the end the negotiations were derailed by special interests on both sides. This was a big disappointment, as South Korea is a top trading partner of the US, and FTA negotiations had already been under way for three years.

Although a KORUS FTA is opposed by certain constituencies in South Korea, especially agriculture, the general public largely supports it. Washington and Seoul will continue negotiations, but Obama now faces more domestic political constraints, while President Lee Myung-Bak has been somewhat embarrassed by the failure to deliver results on this occasion.

JAPAN

Not much was accomplished during Obama’s visit to Japan, largely because the host country is in a weak position. Even before the trip, expectations were quite low.

Overall, the visit was not able to produce any diplomatic achievement, since Japan is psychologically depressed, economically stagnant, with weak or ineffective government. The visit itself also did not garner much media attention in Japan, thanks to the leak of the video recording of the recent fishing trawler incident in the Senkakus which received extensive coverage.

Moreover, although the occasion of the APEC summit in Yokohama provided the stage for Obama’s visit, APEC is a floundering organization that has been eclipsed by other organizations, most recently the G20.

Regarding trade liberalization, much attention was focused on the Trans-Pacific Partnership. However, Prime Minister Naoto Kan could not exert leadership on this issue, due to his weak domestic position, and thus he had to defer to the agricultural sectors that are opposed to the TPP.

On US-Japan relations, there were no meaningful achievements either, as expected. This year marks the 50th anniversary of the US-Japan alliance, but policymakers knew before the visit that there would not be any formal reaffirmation of the alliance. Kan’s political capital has diminished dramatically, and his ability to push forward a defense agenda that would strengthen US-Japan ties is severely constrained.

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About risingpowers
Sigur Center for Asian Studies Elliott School of International Affairs The George Washington University

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