By Stephen Collinson ,AFP
WASHINGTON — Five years after refashioning U.S. foreign policy to emphasize Asia, President Barack Obama will face questions over his strategy’s content and staying power in the region this week. Obama will counter the impression that events, including carnage in Syria and the East-West showdown over Ukraine have dragged his administration’s attention elsewhere. He will argue in Japan, South Korea, Malaysia and the Philippines that the “rebalancing” policy — of withdrawing U.S. military, economic and human resources from Middle East wars and deploying them to emerging Asia — remains on track. Obama will embark on his fifth visit as president to Asia when he lands in Japan on Wednesday.
This journey, the first of two to the region this year, will make up for the embarrassment of skipping regional summits in November because of domestic political battles. He seeks progress in tough talks with Japan over the proposed Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade deal, hung up over auto and agricultural market access. The TPP would cement Obama’s legacy in Asia, but talks on the 12-nation pact lost momentum last year. Obama must also walk a fine line, bolstering alliances with nations which see the United States as a counterweight to powerful China, while avoiding angering Beijing. He will also press on with efforts to ease the dispute between U.S. allies South Korea and Japan, insist North Korea will get no reward for belligerence and complete a revival of U.S. relations with Malaysia. U.S. officials now prefer the term “rebalancing” of U.S.-Asia policy rather than the previous buzzword “pivot,” which implies a departure and caused consternation among U.S. allies in Europe. But some wonder if the policy has been stronger on rhetoric than on delivery since Obama, born in Hawaii and raised for four years in Indonesia, declared himself America’s “first Pacific president” in Japan in 2009. “Unfortunately, the White House has not been able to make the notion of ‘rebalance’ stick and give it operational coherence,” said Kenneth Lieberthal, a Clinton administration Asia policy specialist. “Countries on this visit will be looking for evidence of President Obama’s security commitments and his related tactical skill, the ability to judge and manage issues in a way that establishes reachable goals and a good strategy to get there,” said Lieberthal, of the Brookings Institution. The administration insists the strategy has had tangible results and revitalized American alliances. A small U.S. Marine detachment is already in Darwin, Australia, building up to a permanent rotation of around 2,500 troops. With an eye on North Korea, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel sent two more destroyers to Japan. Several Littoral Combat Ships have been based in Singapore and the U.S. Navy eventually envisages a 60-40 split between assets in the Pacific and elsewhere. Washington was also prominent in luring Myanmar out of isolation, though the country’s reform drive is beset by challenges.