Post #19 – China on the Mind: Obama’s Asia Trip

In post #17 I analyzed the Japan portion of President Obama’s Asia trip.  Following is a fuller assessment of the entire trip.

Obama arrived in an Asia torn by grief.  South Koreans were outraged over the sinking of a ferry boat off Jindo, in which hundreds of high school students perished.  And Chinese and others were outraged over the disappearance of ML-370 in the Indian Ocean and the persistent mishandling of rescue efforts by the Malaysian government.  But Obama had his own preoccupations, especially over a looming breakdown of Israel-Palestine peace talks and the possibility of a second Russian invasion and annexation of Ukraine’s territory.  Perhaps the fact that the long anticipated trip produced few striking results may be attributed to these preoccupations.

Although China was not on the itinerary, it certainly was the elephant in the room. In Japan, Obama’s first stop, the main topic was already news even before he deplaned.  Responding to questions from Yomiuri Shimbun on the territorial dispute with China, he reiterated defense of Japan’s position: “The policy of the United States is clear—the Senkaku Islands are administered by Japan and therefore fall within the scope of Article 5 of the U.S.-Japan Treaty of Mutual Cooperation and Security. And we oppose any unilateral attempts to undermine Japan’s administration of these islands.” Regarding constitutional revision, Obama again seemed to play to Abe’s hand, writing: “I commend Prime Minister Abe for his efforts to strengthen Japan’s defense forces and to deepen the coordination between our militaries, including by reviewing existing limits on the exercise of collective self-defense,” the president said.  He hoped the Japanese Self-Defense Forces would “do more within the framework of our alliance”(

In the Joint Statement released at the end of Obama’s visit, the commitment to defense of the Senkakus and to collective self-defense was repeated, but with added emphasis:

“the United States opposes any unilateral action that seeks to undermine Japan’s administration of the Senkaku Islands. The United States appreciates Japan’s establishment of a National Security Council and creation of a legal framework for information security that will facilitate enhanced policy and intelligence coordination between the two countries.  The United States welcomes and supports Japan’s consideration of the matter of exercising the right of collective self-defense.  The United States and Japan reaffirmed the importance of the U.S. extended deterrence to maintain regional security.  The United States and Japan are also making sustained progress towards realizing a geographically distributed, operationally resilient and politically sustainable U.S. force posture in the Asia Pacific, including the development of Guam as a strategic hub.”

The effort to mitigate China’s predictably upset reaction to these words was not very forceful.  In the only reference to China, the Joint Statement says: “The United States and Japan recognize that China can play an important role in addressing all of these challenges [in the Middle East and Ukraine], and both countries reaffirm their interest in building a productive and constructive relationship with China” (  Mention was made of the need for a code of conduct, recourse to international maritime law, and use of international arbitration as ways to prevent future incidents.  In answer to a reporter’s question, Obama insisted he was not drawing a red line for China.  But Obama did not address China’s claim of sovereignty over Diayudao (Senkaku); nor did he mention the once-promising approach of joint China-Japan development of East China Sea resources.

On the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade pact, Obama and Abe were unable to reach agreement—a fact clear to everyone, yet obscured by the Joint Statement’s claim that “Today, we have identified a path forward on important bilateral TPP issues.” Nothing was stated to back up the claim.  Political obstacles in both countries are responsible for the lack of progress—in Japan, where entrenched agricultural interests see to it that tariff barriers to US beef, autos, and other products remain in place; and in the US, where lack of fast-track authority on the TPP, thanks to Democrats, hamstring Obama, as well as leave other governments that are intent on joining the TPP hanging on a deal with Japan.

One important item evidently not on Obama’s Japan agenda is the ongoing plight of Japan’s nuclear industry.  As I have written elsewhere (“Rotting at the Core: Why There is No End to Japan’s Nuclear Crisis,”, notwithstanding severe criticisms by independent investigators of the government and Tokyo Electric Power Company during the Fukushima nuclear accident in 2011, and the ongoing leaks of radioactive water from the Fukushima Daiichi plants, the Abe administration is intent on reactivating Japan’s fifty-four nuclear reactors.  The issue is not just a matter of the health and safety of Japanese; evidence is accumulating that Fukushima’s radiation is affecting the US and Canadian West Coast waters and fish. Yet while the Japanese press has been diligently questioning Abe’s claims that the safety standards of the reactors now are among “the world’s strictest,” Washington has been silent (  It seems that Obama, on this issue as on Diaoyudao/Senkaku, has chosen not to cause friction in the alliance by raising uncomfortable questions.

South Koreans ordinarily might have been concerned about a possible new North Korean nuclear-weapon test.  But the ferry boat accident turned attention to—and prompted “Confucian guilt” among—the generation perceived as being responsible for the accident.  As two journalists wrote, “Total strangers are accepting joint, generational responsibility for a world so poorly and cynically run that the Sewol ferry did not seem to have had a proper safety examination and the passengers were not given any safety lessons in advance of the tragedy” (Kim Sung-tak and Kim Ki-hwan, “Confucian Guilt Spreads in Korea,”

President Obama apologized for arriving at an inopportune moment.  But with intelligence pointing to an imminent North Korean nuclear weapon test, he vowed to “apply pressure . . . further sanctions that have even more bite.”  President Park Geun-hye said another North Korean test would “fundamentally change the Northeast Asia security landscape.”  Both leaders warned North Korea not to test again, even as Obama acknowledged that there is no “magic bullet” for dealing with North Korea. In that case, their methods for dealing with the DPRK raise questions.  Why would more sanctions make North Korea more amenable to changing course on its nuclear and missile programs?  Extremely unlikely. Will a fourth nuclear test—the first three were in 2006, 2009, and 2013—really change the regional security landscape?  Hardly.  Not only do US and ROK forces have overwhelming conventional and nuclear war capability compared with North Korea.  Additionally, Park apparently persuaded Obama to delay once again transfer of wartime command authority over South Korean troops (known as OPCON) from the US to the ROK. It had been scheduled for next year. The delay supposedly sends a signal to North Korea of the ongoing US commitment to South Korea’s defense.

In the Philippines, the President’s last stop, the two governments as expected signed an agreement to allow for a “rotational presence” of US forces, much like the one with Australia that permits a US deployment of 2500 marines at Darwin.  In the Philippines case, the agreement marks a return of US forces via joint training and exercising with the Filipino armed forces as they shift to an “external security-focused mission” (  Did that new mission mean China?  The new Philippines mission was said to include “maritime security” as well as weapons of mass destruction and disaster relief.  And at the press briefing, one of Obama’s advisers noted that the agreement would serve the Philippines’ desire for a “credible minimum deterrence.”  Yet, he said, “we’re not doing this because of China.”  Really?  Who else is there to deter?

So was the Asia trip (which also included Malaysia) a success?  My guess is that Obama’s team believes that, except for the TPP, it was: allies were provided with strategic reassurances, security ties with the Philippines and Malaysia were strengthened, and China’s overt criticisms were fairly muted.  Yet Obama broke no new ground in Asia policy.  His trip, long overdue, employed rhetoric little different from that of previous administrations.  Talk about a stabilizing US presence, strengthening alliances, providing reassurances, and so on evoked other times during as well as since the Cold War.  One searches in vain for new thinking, in particular on conflict resolution in the East China Sea and on the Korean peninsula.

For instance, I would have liked to see a more innovative approach to North Korea.  Instead—as in Japan—it was mere reiteration of standard policy positions.  As David Sanger reported in the New York Times of April 25, Obama’s advisers on North Korea feel “stuck” as to policy options.  But what they haven’t really explored is engagement.  Meantime, Kim Jong-un has evidently decided to move ahead on refining nuclear weapons, perhaps with a view to miniaturizing one so that it can fit on an intercontinental missile.  Such a step would surely spell another Korea crisis.

Seasoned observers believe that China really was most on the President’s mind, with one—Jeffrey Bader, who served on Obama’s National Security Council—even suggesting that the President’s “message” to China was: “Don’t think that what Putin is doing in eastern Ukraine is so brilliant that you should be inspired by it.”  That assessment may be a matter of looking through binoculars from the wrong end.  The Chinese are surely worried about the resurrection of US containment, not about mimicking Putin.  Obama did say once again that the US is not out to contain China, and Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel, visiting China in advance of Obama’s trip, did seem to make progress on military-to-military relations with China. Yet Obama visited four of the eight countries in East Asia with which the US has military ties of one sort or another.[i]  As the Chinese say, bai wen bu ru yi jian: seeing is believing.

[i] Japan, South Korea, Philippines, Thailand, and Australia are security partners by treaty.  The US has military agreements with Indonesia, Malaysia, and Singapore that provide for activities such as port calls and joint exercises.

Note: This post is a slightly condensed version of my May 2 article for China-US Focus, available at 




  1. A nice overview of the trip Mel. I was a bit disappointed in its outcomes as well. Still, as for some specifics in your post, I do wonder what engagement and ‘a more innovative approach’ with North Korea would look like?
    A colleague who works in defense circles here in Korea said that the Ukraine crisis has analysts in Seoul worried that North Korea could follow Putin’s lead if there was no military reply to his movements in Crimea–that seems to be just drumming up fear. If anything, I would bet that the lesson learned by the DPRK was that giving up your nuclear deterrent (like the Ukraine did) invites your enemies, even if they take a while to ring the doorbell. If this were the case, it would harden the DPRK position on nukes.
    Emma Campbell at East Asia Forum calls for ‘Brave Steps’ from the international community in dealing with the DPRK, but she adds no policy prescriptions and, like so many other analysts, seems to forget that the North Koreans must be willing for fundamental, structural change in their political and security systems before they will be trusted by the West. Such change is not likely anytime soon.
    “Trustpolitik’ by the Park Geun Hye administration seems to put more onus on the DPRK to deliver positive contributions to peaceful activity before rewards are given, and I must say I like that reversal in engagement (let the DPRK come to you).
    So, really I can ask two questions: what do you think of ‘trustpolitik’? And, what are some innovative, concrete steps that could be taken with the DPRK that they would likely accept and deliver on?

  2. Thanks for your very good thoughts and questions. To begin, I agree that North Korea’s stance on nuclear weapons can only harden in light of the Ukraine situation. The weapons have always been thought of as deterrents, not instruments of war-fighting. As for Pres. Park’s approach, in my view it fails from the standpoint of engagement because it lacks incentives for the North Koreans to change behavior. So what might an engagement strategy look like?

    Why would the North Korean leaders be interested in a serious US engagement proposal? I began to spell out an answer in post #2. At an upcoming conference of the National Committee on North Korea in Portland, I will add to that answer as follows:

    Like the US, North Korea is probably tired of talk for talk’s sake; it too won’t “buy the same horse twice.” The challenge, however, is not about buying but about selling: How to reach agreement on the “horse’s” fair selling price. For Pyongyang, that means no denuclearization without prior compensating incentives. In a word, engagement must be seen in Pyongyang as strengthening regime and state survival. North Korea would therefore most likely be interested in a US (or US-ROK) proposal that would provide some assurance against US designs to bring about regime change; that would enhance North Korea’s legitimacy as an independent socialist state—meaning US diplomatic recognition in particular—thus also preventing absorption by the South; that would provide international guarantees of North Korea’s security; that would end sanctions; that would at worst warehouse the North’s nuclear weapons until the terms of a new agreement are largely fulfilled, thus helping satisfy the military; that would pave the way for longterm development assistance, increased trade and investment, and short-term food and fuel aid; that would eliminate the nuclear-weapon option for South Korea and Japan; and that would reduce dependence on China.

    If these considerations are valid, six-party talks should be revived without preconditions and with faithfulness to previous six-party and North-South Korea joint declarations. At these next talks, the US and its partners should present a new package that, in return for verifiable steps to neutralize if not eliminate North Korea’s nuclear arsenal, provides the North with security assurances, a proposal for ending the Korean War and signing a nonaggression pact with big-power guarantees (with China on board), and meaningful economic assistance from both NGOs and governments. The package should be joined to replacing threats with language and actions, such as high-level direct dialogue, that indicate sensitivity to issues of face and status. As two distinguished South Korean experts on North Korea have written, one serious deficiency of most Western writing on the North is that it completely ignores its “obsession” with “supreme dignity” and national pride. Saving face and gaining status recognition are thus quite important explanations of the North’s provocative behavior and search for a deterrent.

    Finding ways to isolate and punish Pyongyang may seem perfectly logical responses to its missile and nuclear tests and other actions, but they are not likely to bring it to the table for serious talks. On the other hand, if US diplomats were to place denuclearization in the context of fulfilling Kim Il-sung’s and Kim Jong-il’s “last wishes,” that might be the kind of face-saving approach that would appeal to Kim Jong-un.

  3. Mel, another element of the puzzle that merits further analysis is the recent evolution of Chinese-Russian strategic and economic relations. The upcoming joint naval exercise is said to reflect a growing willingness on the part of Russia to share advanced naval technology with Xi’s China. And the conclusion of a major, long-term natural gas deal between Gazprom and China will certainly bind the two economies closer together. Is there anything you can add?

  4. The gas deal has been discussed for about 15 years, and now seems about to happen because of Russia’s reduced markets in Europe. But Gazprom will have to build a pipeline and probably accept a lower-than-usual price; the Chinese are in the driver’s seat here, since they have plenty of other sources. As for the naval exercise, let’s just wait and see. China’s navy is not (yet) formidable, and Russia’s has been plagued with problems. Perhaps most important is that suspicions between these two countries remain significant, reflected most recently in China’s lack of support for Putin’s Crimea operation. Goes back to the days when the PRC criticized other Russian/Soviet interventiions–in Hungary, Czechoslovakia, and Afghanistan. These ventures have not been forgotten in Beijing, so that fears of a new Russia-China alliance should not be overblown.

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