President Obama’s impending trip to Asia in April is an opportunity for the U.S. to go beyond mere rhetorical commitment to the Asia pivot.
At a recent event at The Heritage Foundation, experts Randy Shriver of Project 2049 and Heritage fellows Bruce Klingner and Walter Lohman laid the framework for what Obama should accomplish during his tour of Asia.
During his trip, President Obama is expected to visit Japan, South Korea, Malaysia, and the Philippines. Obama’s visit is of vital importance in light of the fact that his previously scheduled trip to Asia last October was canceled. The April trip’s expanded itinerary provides an opportunity for Obama to reassure allies of U.S. commitment to the region and continue to build goodwill in Southeast Asia. But it should be about more than that.
Shriver, a former Bush Administration official, noted that the timing of the trip is critical, particularly in the context of U.S.–Japan relations. Japan has demonstrated its willingness to expand its defense capabilities through the creation of its own National Defense Program Guidelines, national security council, and continued discussion of an expanded defense cooperation agreement between the U.S. and Japan.
Shriver noted that Obama’s visit is the right time to expand U.S.–Japan military-to-military relations, facilitate the creation of a robust energy partnership, and transform the U.S.–Japan relationship into more of a global alliance.
Klingner noted that the combination of positive U.S.–South Korea relations and insecurity in the region make Obama’s trip the right time to privately encourage South Korea to improve its relationship with Japan. He also suggested that the U.S. urge increased cooperation between the U.S. and South Korea on North Korea, advise South Korea to improve its ballistic missile capabilities, and affirm the U.S. military’s commitment to defending South Korea and other allies in the region.
Lohman urged the Administration to capitalize on Obama’s popularity in the region to create tangible results in the U.S.’s relationship with Malaysia and the Philippines. In particular, Lohman believed that the U.S. should expand security cooperation with the Philippines and encourage the conclusion of an agreement to allow for an increase in American military rotation through Philippine facilities.
All of the panelists agreed that forward movement on the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) was essential to the success of Obama’s trip and the pivot as a whole. Obama’s trip to Asia is an opportunity for him to display leadership on the issue of trade, said Lohman and Shriver, especially when he visits Japan. Progress on TPP would be a clear way for the U.S. to tangibly represent the reality of the pivot.
It is critically important that Obama use his trip to Asia as an opportunity to demonstrate that the Asia rebalance is more than just rhetoric and good intentions. The President should take careful note of the important economic, security, and diplomatic opportunities that could result from a successful and productive trip to Asia.