Barack Obama must find the right balance on tour of Asia

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 24 April, 2014, 3:47am
UPDATED : Thursday, 24 April, 2014, 4:00am

China is not on the itinerary of US President Barack Obama's first trip to Asia in two years, although on each of his four stops, it will be high on the agenda. Territorial disputes, rivalry and strategic and economic concerns will be reflected in talks with leaders in Japan, South Korea, the Philippines and Malaysia. Beijing will be following progress closely, trying to gauge what the American strategic pivot to Asia means following Washington's foreign policy failures in Ukraine and Syria. There will be a temptation for the US and its allies to be assertive and provocative, but that is not what the region's people want or need; decreased tension will come about only with restraint and level-headedness.

Finding balance will be challenging. Obama's pivot towards Asia and the Pacific has been derailed since 2012 by domestic issues; most recently, a partial shutdown of the government forced him to pull out of two regional summits. US treaty allies Japan, South Korea and the Philippines, potential strategic partner Malaysia, and countries worried by China's rise, seek strong American economic and military reassurances.

Japan, the Philippines and Malaysia have territorial disputes with China and all have sought US help in pushing their claims. At Obama's summit with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe today, the US security commitment to Japan will be highlighted. In South Korea, Seoul will be encouraged to smooth its frayed relationship with Tokyo and efforts made to shore up ties with the US at a time when South Korea is moving closer to China. Also on the table is pushing ratification of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the 12-nation common economic pact that could be a solid foundation for regional co-operation.

Obama has to be diplomatic. He has to resist strongly backing territorial claims, as he did in a Japanese newspaper article on the eve of his trip - comments that have been rejected by Beijing - and refrain from driving a wedge between China and its neighbours. Milder positions and dialogue have to be encouraged. To do otherwise will worsen tensions.