Obama's visit to Asia flawed by lack of trade incentives

The US president had successes on his Asia trip, but analysts say he failed to strengthen his 'pivot' towards region with enough trade initiatives

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 29 April, 2014, 11:48pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 30 April, 2014, 7:01pm

It may well have been the best sushi of his life. But when US President Barack Obama rose from the table of Sukiyabashi Jiro after dining with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, the American leader left some food for thought.

His challenge was great: countering a widespread perception that US influence in the region had diminished - even though many of its leaders doubt that Washington has much interest in maintaining the region's security.

Some analysts said Obama scored points on the political and security fronts - a 10-year military pact with the Philippines, for one.

But the US president committed a fatal flaw, some of them said: He failed to strengthen his Asia policy - the so-called rebalancing or pivot - with enough trade initiatives to enhance US economic power in the region. "It's definitely a mixed bag," said Michael Auslin, the director of Japanese studies at the American Enterprise Institute, a Washington think tank. Obama used the four-nation tour to try to convince Asian allies that he is serious about anchoring the US - economically, politically and militarily in a continent increasingly overshadowed by an aggressive China.

Watch: Anti-US protest in Manila as Obama's visit ends

Unless you get more involved, your will will always be questioned

There were no shortages of pledges to reaffirm security alliances and to deepen engagements. Along every stop - which included visits to Japan, South Korea, the Philippines and a new strategic partner, Malaysia - Obama reiterated that the US would not shy away from confrontations with China. He said this as several nations are embroiled in maritime territorial disputes with Beijing.

Both Japan and the Philippines, which have been the most vocal in confronting China over disputed territories, received strong assurances. Obama became the first US president to state that the mutual defence treaty with Japan covered a set of islands in the East China Sea that China considers its own.

He also gave public support to Philippine President Benigno Aquino's decision to seek international arbitration as it challenges China's claims in the South China Sea. A 10-year military agreement with Manila, which was signed just hours before Obama's arrival on Monday, was also touted as a significant step to increase US military presence in the region.

Reassurances aside, Obama has not shaken a regional perception that Washington's power has diminished as Beijing's has risen. Some countries might fear - based on its cautious response to the Russian annexation of Crimea in Ukraine - that war-weary Washington would not defend its Pacific allies if China invaded.

"We have all the forces you would need," said Auslin of the conservative Washington think tank. "Our problem from the perception of people in the region is that it doesn't matter because we are sitting on the sidelines. Unless you get more involved, your will will always be questioned."

That perception is rooted in Washington's unwillingness to confront Pyongyang as it continues to build up its nuclear weaponry.

"The fact that we [the US] have never done anything to stop or punish North Korea to stop its nuclear programme, that affects your will," Auslin said.

Obama defended himself against criticism that he's been weak and indecisive in confronting Russia. The costs - in lives and dollars - of the last decade of war required that he be cautious, he told reporters on Monday.

"Why is it that everybody is so eager to use military force after we've just gone through a decade of war at enormous costs to our troops and to our budget?" Obama said in response to a reporter's question. "My job as commander-in-chief is to deploy military force as a last resort and to deploy it wisely. And, frankly, most of the foreign policy commentators that have questioned our policies would go headlong into a bunch of military adventures that the American people had no interest in participating in and would not advance our core security interests."

The US has taken the lead in negotiating the Transpacific Partnership Agreement (TPP), a trade pact that would integrate 12 economies across the region by lowering trade barriers. But Obama's visit failed to secure a breakthrough in a bilateral trade accord with Japan. That pact is seen as an instrumental step in finalising the TPP, which would broaden US economic influence in Asia. Major disagreements on a range of issues have kept Japan and the US from ratifying it.

At the same time, the pact is opposed by some in the US Senate, which would need to ratify any deal. An Asia visit without sealing the trade deal was a squandered chance, some analysts said.

"The president committed the fatal flaw of visiting Asia without having spent political capital on trade," said Ernest Bower, a senior adviser at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.

A bigger problem, Bower added, was that Obama had failed to explain to Americans why he believed the country needed to focus on Asia. "Without that foundation, he can't move the trade agenda, sustain military rebalancing and overall engagement," Bower said.