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Obama Message to Asia: America's Back!

"America is back!" This phrase, used by Hillary Clinton when she choose Asia as her first overseas destination after becoming Secretary of State, provides the underlying theme of President Obama's first trip to the region. "One of my important tasks," Obama said in a pre-trip interview, is "to strengthen the relationship between the United States and Asia."

Members of the George W. Bush administration could make the argument, convincingly in my view, that we never left but there was a perception of benign neglect as the global war on terrorism and Iraq and Afghanistan reconstruction efforts seemed to divert Washington's attention away from Asia. While one could see President Obama as equally preoccupied - with his efforts to push through a universal health care program added to the Afghanistan/Iraq/ counter-terrorism mix - his four-country swing through Asia, in conjunction with a multinational Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) Leaders' Meeting, provides an opportunity to underscore and build upon the basic continuity on key issues - the centrality of the U.S. alliance network; the need for a cooperative, constructive relationship with China; the growing importance of ASEAN in general and multilateral cooperation in general - that have been generally supported by past Democratic and Republican administrations alike.

With few exceptions, the Obama administration's Asia policies reflect "more of the same" and, hopefully, "much more of the same" when compared to the Bush administration's Asia policies. Rather than reverse course, the focus thus far has been on building upon the existing base to take relations with Asia to the next level.

Japan. The President started, as he should and as Secretary Clinton did, in Japan where the primary goal is reinforcement of the strong alliance relationship despite leadership changes in both Washington and, more recently, in Tokyo. Much has been made of the growing "tensions" in the alliance relationship but President Obama was quick to try to defuse the most contentious issue by agreeing to a "high-level working group" to discuss Okinawa relocation issues, even while making it clear that he was committed to the overall Japan base restructuring plan negotiated under the direction of Bush's and his shared Defense Secretary Robert Gates.

Washington had initially been concerned that the Hatoyama administration seemed to be looking at the Futenma Air Base relocation issue in particular as one card in the overall deck of U.S.-Japan relations, to be played or discarded as it chooses. Washington sees Futenma as part of a "house of cards" and fears that pulling out this foundational card could cause the rest of the overall relocation plan to crumble. The "high-level working group" should iron out these differences in perception.

America's self-described "first Pacific President" (based on his Hawaii roots) also gave a major Asia policy address in Tokyo where he underscored both the central role of the U.S. bilateral alliance structure in Asia - with Korea, Australia, the Philippines and Thailand, as well as "our close friendship with Japan - which will always be a centrepiece of our efforts in the region." In an obvious rejoinder to frequently heard complaints in Beijing about the U.S. alliance network being a "leftover" from history or representing a "Cold War mentality," Obama pointed out that "alliances that are not historical documents from a bygone era, but abiding commitments to each other that are fundamental to our shared security."

Earlier President Obama had referred to the Japan-U.S. partnership as one of "equals," and "not a senior-versus-junior partnership," clearly playing to Prime Minister Hatoyama's proclamations about wanting a greater say in the alliance. In truth, a "more equal" relationship is exactly what Washington has been seeking, one in which Japan sees itself as playing a more active security as well as economic role globally in support of common objectives. Meanwhile, those who argue that Hatoyama's support for closer East Asia cooperation and better Sino-Japanese relations foreshadows an anti-American or exclusionary agenda or a Japanese "tilt toward Japan" just don't understand the strong base of common interests and shared values that bind the U.S. and Japan together, a point both leaders stressed during Obama's visit.

APEC/ASEAN. President Obama also express support, both in Tokyo and upon arrival at the APEC Leaders Meeting in Singapore, for Asia-Pacific multilateral institutions. It was here he distinguished his policies from those of his predecessor: "I know that the United States has been disengaged from these organizations in recent years. So let me be clear: those days have passed."

In fairness, George W. Bush was a perfect eight-for-eight when it came to APEC, something his predecessor could not claim. But perceptions trump reality and Obama's assertion helped reinforce the "America is back" message that he wanted to deliver (and that most of Asia wants to hear). He also reaffirmed the long-standing American preference for multilateral mechanisms that include the U.S.: "As an Asia Pacific nation, the United States expects to be involved in the discussions that shape the future of this region, and to participate fully in appropriate organizations as they are established and evolve."

President Obama even hinted at Washington's readiness to join ASEAN's Three (China, Japan, South Korea) Plus Three (Australia, India, and New Zealand) forum: "the United States looks forward to engaging with the East Asia Summit more formally as it plays a role in addressing the challenges of our time." Secretary Clinton's signing of ASEAN'S Treaty of Amity and Cooperation (TAC) during the July ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) ministerial meeting had removed the last hurdle standing in the way of U.S. membership but signals had previously been mixed as to whether or not the U.S. would finally come on board.

The event most likely to capture headlines in Singapore - for all the wrong reasons - is President Obama's summit with the ten members of ASEAN. Again this is part of a continuing effort to build closer ties with Southeast Asia. A similar summit had been planned two years ago but was scrubbed when President Bush had to rush home to deal with Iraq rather than continue on to Singapore after the 2007 APEC Leaders Meeting in Sydney. (Last year's meeting was in Lima, Peru where President Bush met for the third time with the seven members of ASEAN who are also in APEC.)

The first ever full ASEAN-U.S. summit places a U.S. president and Burmese prime minister in the same room at the same time and much will be made of this historical oddity. It helps underscore one of the major policy differences between President Obama and his predecessor: his willingness to outstretch his hand to those who are prepared to unclench their fist. Even here the objective remains the same as in previous administrations: promoting free and fair elections (as promised by the Burmese leadership) and obtaining the release from house arrest of Aung San Suu Kyi. This openness to dialogue with Burma also opens the door for Washington and the other nine members of ASEAN to craft a more unified policy toward Burma aimed at achieving these twin common goals.

China. President Obama's visit to Shanghai (where he will address an open student forum) and Beijing will help set the tone for a "spirit of partnership" between China and the United States. Obama's two most recent predecessors began their terms on shaky grounds with Beijing - recall Bill Clinton's "butchers of Beijing" characterization of the Chinese leadership and the EP3 incident and Taiwan arms sales decision that marred George W. Bush's initial overtures. Not starting in a hole has allowed the Obama administration to focus on taking Sino-U.S. relations to the next level of cooperation on strategic as well as economic and environmental issues. It remains an open question, however, just how prepared Beijing is to take "yes" for an answer and truly cooperate on issues of vital importance to the Obama administration, such as non-proliferation (read: Iran and North Korea) and climate change.

In his Tokyo Asia policy address, President Obama defined the parameters of the relationship, noting that "in an inter-connected world, power does not need to be a zero-sum game, and nations need not fear the success of another. Cultivating spheres of cooperation - not competing spheres of influence - will lead to progress in the Asia Pacific." He acknowledged that Washington and Beijing "will not agree on every issue," and that is administration "will never waver in speaking up for the fundamental values that we hold dear." But, he asserted, "the United States does not seek to contain China," further noting that "the rise of a strong, prosperous China can be a source of strength for the community of nations."

Korea. In recent years, visits to Korea were always seen as the most contentious, due to growing differences between the Bush and Roh Moo-hyun administrations on alliance issues and North Korea policy. This time, a more positive, uplifting visit is expected. Presidents Lee Myung-Bak and Obama have already held two prior summits and have developed a smooth working relationship and genuine friendship. The Joint Vision Statement signed by both leaders during Lee's visit to Washington in June also sets the tone for a constructive largely non-contentious visit. Obama is expected to skillfully dance around the one remaining sore point in U.S.-ROK relations: the failure of his administration to deliver on the Korea-U.S. Free Trade Agreement (KORUS) negotiated by their predecessors and strongly supported by Lee. Candidate Obama ran against KORUS FTA and, while he has tempered his comments since, does not appear ready to move on this issue despite signs of growing (but still insufficient) Congressional support for this trade pact. The best he could promise in his Tokyo speech was that "together, with our South Korean friends, we will work through the issues necessary to move forward on a trade agreement with them." Few believe this can or will happen until after the health care debate is settled, one way or the other.

One area where the U.S. and ROK administrations appear in lock step is on North Korea policy, with both calling for "full and verifiable denuclearization of the Korean peninsula" while warning that continued provocation and confrontation will result in tightened sanctions. Both are also prepared to offer Pyongyang a "different future" if it chooses instead to denuclearize and join the international family of nations. President Lee's "Grand Bargain" - his offering of a comprehensive economic assistance package in return for denuclearization and constructive South-North dialogue - seems consistent with the Obama "different future" approach; one hopes the two leaders will try to tie these packages together during Obama's Seoul visit.

Better still would be an effort by the two presidents to build upon their Joint Vision by addressing three key points that the June statement missed: the future role of the alliance post-reunification; the respective ROK and U.S. roles when it comes to both denuclearization and the broader issue of Korean Peninsula peace and stability (including a reaffirmation of Seoul's leading role in the latter); and the identification of mid-term goals that would (or at least should) be acceptable to Pyongyang in charting a future path.

While highly commendable as a vital first step in deepening and strengthening the bilateral relationship, the Joint Vision, as currently stated, is likely to reinforce rather than overcome or neutralize Pyongyang's assertions of American and ROK "hostile policy" toward the North and make denuclearization even more unlikely. President Obama needs to encourage President Lee to develop and adopt a South-North "peaceful coexistence" framework within which each side could still profess its long-term goal (with different interpretations) of reunification but officially recognize one another's right to exist and independent sovereignty today, as an integral part of the "Grand Bargain" approach.

Nuclear weapons free world. A few final words are in order before closing regarding President Obama's commitment to move toward a nuclear weapons free world (an objective he readily and realistically admits is not likely to occur in his lifetime).

No nation is more supportive of the concept than is Japan and the current government seems willing to explore contentious aspects like a "no first use" (NFU) pledges -- although contrary to some sloppy reporting the Japanese government has not taken an official stand on this issue and has not asked Washington to adopt a NFU policy. This highly moralistic stand has to be seen in the broader context of the dangerous neighborhood in which Japan lives and the concerns raised by many Japanese specialists and officials about America's "extended deterrence" security guarantees.

Living in a nuclear weapons free world is not the problem; getting there from here is. It must be done in a way that preserves nuclear deterrence as long as such weapons still exist. President Obama's Tokyo speech recognizes this fact: "Let me be clear: so long as these weapons exist, the United States will maintain a strong and effective nuclear deterrent that guarantees the defense of our allies - including South Korea and Japan."

In sum, President Obama's Asia trip and first major Asia policy address send the clear message that "America is back," especially when it comes to preserving and strengthening its Asian alliance relationships, engaging constructively with China and with regional multilateral forums, and when pursuing both regional and global non-proliferation and disarmament agendas.

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