Barack Obama

US interest fading in pivot to Asia

Richard Halloran says with only a year gone, America already appears to be pulling back from its avowed strategic 'rebalancing' towards Asia

PUBLISHED : Friday, 01 March, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 01 March, 2013, 3:32am

After a little more than a year of fanfare, President Barack Obama's "pivot" of American political, economic and military attention to Asia and the Pacific seems to be fading. The clues are subtle.

The president hurried through a brief discussion with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe last Friday when they met for an hour in the Oval Office. Afterwards, the two leaders met the press to deliver platitudes, then had a working lunch.

A revealing difference in attitude could be seen in remarks to the press. Obama said his discussion with Abe had been a "bilateral meeting", meaning one of many workaday meetings he has with other leaders. Abe termed it a "summit meeting", giving it top place.

In the afternoon, Secretary of State John Kerry's meeting with Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida produced more platitudes. Beyond that, there was no state dinner, no side trip to the presidential retreat at Camp David for informal meetings, no gathering with key congressional leaders.

Late in the day, in a talk at a Washington think tank, Abe responded with the most forthright speech on security heard from a Japanese leader in years. "Japan is back," he asserted. "Keep counting on my country." He set three tasks for Japan under his leadership. As the Asia-Pacific and Indian Ocean regions become more prosperous, "Japan must remain a leading promoter of rules" for trade, investment, intellectual property, labour and the environment; continue to be "a guardian of the global commons, like the maritime commons", helping to keep it open for everyone; and work more closely with the US, Korea, Australia and other like-minded democracies throughout the region.

And with an oblique reference to Japan's dispute with China over the Senkaku Islands, the prime minister said: "No one should ever doubt the robustness of the Japan-US alliance." It was, perhaps inadvertently, a mild rebuke for Obama's diminished interest in US relations with Asia.

In the meantime, the White House dispatched a second-level delegation to the inauguration of South Korean President Park Geun-hye. Only the national security adviser, Tom Donilon, and an aide went from Washington. In 2008, secretary of state Condoleezza Rice represented the US, as did secretary of state Colin Powell in 2003, at Korean inaugurations, in a nation sensitive to appearances and "face".

Over the weekend, Kerry departed on a swing through Europe and the Middle East, on his initial trip abroad in his new post. In contrast, Hillary Rodham Clinton flew to Japan, Korea, Indonesia and China on her first official journey abroad.

The reason for the slackening: Obama appears to be consumed with domestic politics. That was clear in his inaugural and state of the union addresses.

It was Clinton who first made public the pivot, later called the "rebalance", in an article in November 2011, calling for the US to "lock in a substantially increased investment - diplomatic, economic, strategic, and otherwise - in the Asia-Pacific region". But, of course, this initial advocate of the pivot has now left office.

Richard Halloran is a former New York Times foreign correspondent in Asia and military correspondent in Washington