When Hawaii−born U.S. President Barack Obama famously declared himself America’s first “Pacific President” in a speech in Tokyo two years ago, the audience was charmed by his references to green−tea ice cream, childhood visits to Japan and boyhood years in Indonesia.
They were probably less impressed by America’s Asia policy during his first year in office. Mr. Obama showed up to the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) with virtually no trade policy, acquiesced to Beijing unnecessarily on several issues and had a rocky start with U.S. allies and friends like Japan, India and Taiwan. Weeks before America’s new president was about to leave for his first official Asia trip, Lee Kuan Yew, Singapore’s patriarch and one of Asia’s leading strategic thinkers, warned that the United States risked losing global leadership if it did not remain engaged in Asia to balance a rising China.
Since then, Mr. Obama has tried to make amends by buttressing ties with countries generally aligned with the United States instead of trying to change the interests of those who are not. He has backed Southeast Asian countries against Chinese bullying in the South China Sea, enhanced America’s checkered commitment to regional multilateral forums and deepened relations with allies and strategic partners like Indonesia, South Korea and Vietnam. Meanwhile, flickers of hope have appeared in U.S. engagement efforts with North Korea and Myanmar. In recent months, his administration has indicated that despite defense cuts and economic challenges at home, the United States remains committed to lead in the Asia−Pacific.
Mr. Obama made more waves in his latest voyage across the Pacific. Hosting the APEC summit in Hawaii, he pushed his regional trade agreement, the Trans−Pacific Partnership, which advances a platinum Free Trade Agreement standard that addresses critical commercial rules and regulations. In Australia, he secured greater U.S. access to Australian bases, providing a staging point for the American military in the Indian Ocean and a sanctuary beyond the striking range of China’s growing arsenal of long−range missiles.
Equally important was what Mr. Obama did not do. He did not fan Chinese fears of containment and Southeast Asian fears of superpower rivalry by suggesting that these overtures were aimed at Beijing. In fact, he went out of his way to say directly that “the notion that we’re looking to exclude China is mistaken,” and that Beijing was an important part of setting principles for all actors to follow in the region, even if it would have to realign its policies to pursue future common goals. That struck a good balance between advancing a U.S. vision in Asia and leaving room for conditional Chinese involvement. Chinese officials, of course, still questioned whether American initiatives were “appropriate,” forgetting the fact that it was Beijing’s own missteps that had opened the door to a stronger U.S. presence in the region.
He also did not attempt to dominate the agenda at America’s first East Asian Summit (EAS) as some countries had feared. Instead, he backed other Asian nations’ insistence on a multilateral resolution of conflicting territorial claims in the South China Sea after they had all spoken at a smaller EAS session on Saturday. Though Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao was put on the defensive, he addressed the concerns in a constructive way that was a far cry from Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi’s notorious tantrum at the ASEAN Regional Forum in 2010. That was a relief to Asian countries, who wanted to make their worries heard without incurring Beijing’s wrath.
Mr. Obama still has a year in office before presidential elections next year, during which much can happen. But as he returns from his weeklong swing around the Pacific Rim, he certainly looks more the part of a Pacific President than he did two years ago.
This article was originally published in the Tufts Daily.