Obama Asia Visit Raises New Questions

SINGAPORE – U.S. President Barack Obama’s week-long visit to Asia was meant to reassure allies in the region of American support and re-engagement. But it raised Chinese hackles and failed to dispel doubts over his administration’s ‘pivot to Asia’ strategy.

During his visit to Japan, South Korea, Malaysia and the Philippines Apr. 23-29, Obama repeatedly asserted that the key to prosperity in Asia lay in China playing by the rules, rather than bending them to suit its own interests.

His final stop was in Manila, traditionally a staunch U.S. ally that has an ongoing dispute with China over islands in the South China Sea. The Philippines and the U.S. signed an Agreement on Enhanced Defence Cooperation (AEDC) that will allow the U.S. to redeploy military forces in the islands for the first time in over two decades.

“What we see is Washington’s ‘exhibitionist syndrome’, that is, the imperative it feels to ‘show the flag’ to its allies and to China, and to do so in an inexpensive way, with no rent to the host country.”
– Walden Bello“Our territorial conflicts with China are the reason for this new agreement,” noted Walden Bello, a member of parliament writing in the Philippines Daily Inquirer. “AEDC is the mechanism that will make the Chinese respect our rights to Scarborough Shoal, the nine islands and reefs we claim in the Spratly Islands, our continental shelf and our 200 Mile Exclusive Economic Zone. The truth of the matter, however, is that the deal will do no such thing.”

Bello, a long-term critic of U.S. policy in the region, argues, “What we see is Washington’s ‘exhibitionist syndrome’, that is, the imperative it feels to ‘show the flag’ to its allies and to China, and to do so in an inexpensive way, with no rent to the host country.”

Obama said in a speech at the Philippines Army headquarters in Manila that nations and peoples have the right to live in security and peace and have their sovereignty and territorial integrity respected. “We believe that international law must be upheld, that freedom of navigation must be preserved and commerce must not be impeded,” he said.

Critics say such comments have drawn further skepticism in the region because what Obama is preaching is not practiced by his own nation – as the history of American foreign policy in the past two decades clearly shows. China has also latched on to such arguments to claim that it is the U.S. rather than China that is trying to destabilize the region.

“Obama’s rhetoric about peace and international law sounds hollow because it contradicts what Washington and (he) himself have been up to,” said the state-controlled China Daily in an editorial on Apr. 29, adding “it is now clear that Washington is no longer bothering to conceal its attempt to contain China’s influence in the region. It is even less convincing to say the U.S. pivot to the Asia-Pacific is not targeted against China.”

Announced in January 2012, the Obama administration’s ‘pivot to Asia’ strategy is a multi-dimensional one that includes improving bilateral relationships in the region, especially with its traditional allies; deepening working relationships with emerging powers, including China; and promoting trade and investment in the Asia-Pacific region.

“Asian allies (such as Singapore and the Philippines) believe a U.S.-centric order is good for the region by and large,” argued Dr Tan See Seng, head of the Center for Multilateralism Studies at Nanyang Technological University (NTU) here.

“America is one of the major countries that sets the rules and expects others to follow even as it breaks its own rules. China sees that point very clearly and doesn’t accept that,” Tan told IPS.