Written by Misato Matsuoka.

A lot of emphasis was put on President Obama’s recent visit to Asia as it was the first trip to the region during his second term and came amid concerns about the effect of the Ukraine crisis on the long promised rebalancing policy. After he failed to make his trip last October due to the government shutdown, Obama eventually embarked on a weeklong tour to Japan, South Korea, Malaysia, and the Philippines. Seen through the lens of Obama’s rebalancing strategy, the key objectives of the trip centered around economic and security issues, and reassuring US friends and allies of its leadership and commitment to the region. According to the White House, its major priorities in the region are modernizing the alliances; supporting democratic development; advancing the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) and commercial ties; investing in regional institutions; and deepening cultural and people-to-people ties. The US Senate foreign relations committee’s recent report also urged Obama to upgrade US alliances in the Asia-Pacific by showing “an enduring US commitment to the region, assuring our partners that we are in it for the long haul.”

Rebalancing to Asia has not been an easy task for the US. One issue raising concerns is the relationship between Japan and South Korea, two key US allies in the region. Under the respective administrations of Abe and Park, tensions have intensified over the Dokdo/Takeshima island dispute, ongoing problems with history textbooks, Abe’s visit to the Yasukuni Shrine and unresolved comfort women issues. Some of these issues have frustrated the White House. For instance, since the launch of the second Abe administration, US has persistently asked Japanese government officials not go to the Yasukuni shrine. Furthermore, and perhaps for the first time, the US made an effort to bring the two countries together on the sidelines of the third Nuclear Security Summit in The Hague, raising the common interest in North Korean nuclear issues. In fact, this effort appears to have borne fruit on the Japanese side with Abe refraining from visiting the shrine during the annual spring ceremony, although his sending of the “masakaki” (a tree used for Shinto rituals) frustrated South Korea anyway. Interestingly, Obama’s visit to Asia initially did not include South Korea, and the agenda was rescheduled to include Seoul on the advice of experts on US alliances. Michael Green, Richard Armitage and Victor Cha remarked in the Washington Post that Obama should stopover in South Korea, particularly at a time of sensitive relations between Japan and South Korea. They also recommended Obama refrain from trying to “arbitrate the complex historical problems between Japan and South Korea”, but rather suggest that the trip was an “ideal opportunity to keep the leadership in Tokyo and Seoul focused.”

A prominent feature of Obama’s visit was the cultural diplomacy element in the communication of American allies. It is not uncommon to utilize one’s own culture for diplomatic purpose and this was highlighted by Abe’s “sushi diplomacy” in particular. Abe took Obama to “Sukiyabashi Jiro” which was popularised by David Gelb’s 2011 documentary film “Jiro Dreams of Sushi”. However, leaving half of the sushi course, Japan’s cultural diplomacy may not have been successful considering Obama’s business-like attitude. Abe told his key ministers saying that “It was all about work,” jumping straight into discussions about trade (presumably TPP). Conversely, South Korea’s “bulgogi diplomacy” appears to have been more successful, considering that it is one of Obama’s favorite Korean dishes. We can see utilization of cultural diplomacy by these allies as signifying the desire to please the US.

President Obama’s visit seems to have been more successful in security rather than economic terms. Obama concluded his visit to Japan assuring that Washington would come to its defence, while being less successful in concluding trade deals. He told South Korea to work “shoulder to shoulder” especially in regard to the issue of North Korea, which is considered by some as “the most destabilizing dangerous situation in all of the Asia-Pacific region”. With the newly “Enhanced Defence Cooperation Agreement (EDCA)”, the Philippines needed US support in the wake of Typhoon Haiyan and in the face of Chinese pressure over disputed territory in the South China Sea. Only Malaysia, emerging as a major trade and potential US diplomatic partner, can be considered as success on the economic side of the agenda. Assessing Obama’s visit as a component of his rebalancing strategy, there are both pros and cons. As for negative side, there are reasonable concerns about the exclusion of China. Ling (2013) notes that the rebalancing has created a “Georgia Scenario” among some U.S. allies and partners by unnecessarily provoking China and enhancing U.S.–China distrust which is leading to the “de-balancing” of the region.[1] Others argue that President Obama had already had a meeting with President Xi in the summer of 2013 and will travel for another regional meeting later this year. On the positive side, some may observe that this visit has forged US’s “alliance network” while encouraging greater commitment of US allies. Ultimately, it may be too early to judge the success of US rebalancing strategy to the region, but this visit appeared to demonstrate commitment for entangling the alliance network in the region.

Misato Matsuoka is a Ph.D. candidate at the Department of Politics and International Studies at the University of Warwick and CPI blog’s Emerging Scholar. Research interests cover the U.S.-Japan alliance, neo-Gramscianism and regionalism in Asia-Pacific.

[1] Wei Ling (2013) “Rebalancing or De-Balancing: U.S. Pivot and East Asian Order,” American Foreign Policy Interests: The Journal of the National Committee on American Foreign Policy, 35:3, pp.148-154

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