Obama's Asian trip reflects new global dynamics, Stanford scholar says

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Donald K. Emmerson, director of Shorenstein APARC's Southeast Asia Program and FSI senior fellow emeritus, offers insight on U.S. President Barack Obama's Asian tour. He says the trip most notably reinforces America's 'rebalance' efforts to upgrade security commitments and promote freer trade negotiation in that region.

When President Barack Obama this week began a high-profile visit to Asia, it called into question how effective the "Asian pivot" in America's foreign policy has been. A few years ago, Obama announced that a rebalancing of U.S. interests toward Asia would be a central tenet of his legacy. Now he is visiting Japan, South Korea, Malaysia and the Philippines to reassert the message that America is truly focused on Asia – despite finding itself repeatedly pulled away by crises in Ukraine and the Middle East, and political battles in Washington, D.C.

Stanford political scientist Donald K. Emmerson, an expert on Asia, China-Southeast Asia relations, sovereignty disputes and the American "rebalance" toward Asia, sat down with the Stanford News Service to discuss Obama's trip. Emmerson is a senior fellow emeritus at the Walter H. Shorenstein Asia-Pacific Research Center in the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies.

President Obama started his Asian pivot a few years ago. Have problems in Ukraine, Syria, Iran and at home detracted from this new approach?

The pivot as practiced continues unabated. The pivot as perceived has suffered from its displacement on various attention spans by superseding events and concerns, both foreign and domestic. President Obama's current trip to Asia is itself a reflection of these distractions. Originally planned for October, it was postponed by extreme political discord in Washington. But the chief elements of the pivot remain in place and in progress. They are most notably the upgrading of American security commitments and the effort to negotiate freer trade.

Why does this rebalancing in U.S. foreign policy make sense – or not?

The pivot certainly serves U.S. interests. Americans cannot afford to deny themselves, or be denied by others, the opportunities for trade and investment that Asia's most dynamic economies will continue to generate. The U.S. also needs to work with China and its neighbors to help ensure that China's rise serves the wider security interests of Americans, Chinese, Asians and the world, however dissonant the day-to-day advocacy of those interests may be. Ironically, by obliterating Obama's proposed reset of U.S.-Russia relations, Vladimir Putin has become an unintentional friend of the rebalance toward Asia. His aggression in Crimea and eastern Ukraine has made all the more urgent the need for Washington to pursue mutually beneficial relations with Beijing and the rest of Asia that could moderate China's willingness and ability to force its ownfaits accomplis in the East and South China Seas.

Do Chinese leaders view Obama's Asian pivot as a de facto containment approach to a rising China?

China's leaders do question U.S. intentions. But one ought not ignore the dozens and dozens of venues and ways in which the two countries' governments continue to cooperate on multiple fronts. In domestic terms it is politically convenient for Chinese hardliners to disparage American motives. As with the pivot itself, however, perception and practice are not the same thing.

Are Asian countries more rattled than ever by China's behavior in places like the South and East China Seas?

Concerned, yes; rattled, no. There are six or seven different claimants to contested land features and/or sea space in the South China Sea, not to mention the territorial tensions that also bedevil interstate relations in Northeast Asia. East Asian leaders are not lined up in a united front against Beijing. They are themselves divided. The more assertive China becomes, the more pushback it can expect. But most of the states in Southeast Asia do not want to ally with the U.S. against China, or with China against the U.S.

The U.S. and the Philippines are poised to sign a treaty that will expand America's military presence in the island country. What's the significance of the treaty?

Articles 4 and 5 of the treaty commit Washington and Manila to "act to meet the common dangers" implied by "an armed attack in the Pacific Area" on the "metropolitan territory" of either party, or on the "island territories under its jurisdiction," or on "its armed forces, public vessels or aircraft in the Pacific," and to do so "in accordance with its constitutional processes." But these provisions are hardly self-implementing; they require interpretation. Even if China were to forcibly evict the Philippine marines who now occupy Second Thomas Shoal in the South China Sea, the treaty would not automatically trigger an American military response. Applied to that scenario, the treaty would not instantly entrap the U.S. in a war with China. But the treaty would require some action or statement on the part of Washington. In Manila, Obama will try to reassure his Philippine host in this regard without enraging its Chinese neighbor.

Obama will be the first U.S. president in five decades to visit Malaysia. What does that visit mean for that country?

Of the four countries that Obama is visiting, it is in Malaysia that the pivot's third face after security and economy – namely democracy – will be most visible. Obama will be careful not to appear to enter into the domestic political turbulence Malaysia is experiencing, but his visits with civil society actors and university students in Kuala Lumpur will send the nonpartisan message that America remains committed to democratic values for itself and for Asians as well.

Clifton Parker is a writer for the Stanford News Service.