WASHINGTON (TIP): President Barack Obama will seek to ease questions over the staying power of his strategic shift to increasingly tense East Asia in April with stops in Japan, Malaysia, the Philippines and South Korea.
Obama’s visits to Manila and Kuala Lumpur are intended to make up for his no-show when he cancelled a previous Asia tour in October amid domestic political strife in Washington. A subtext to his visit will be rising territorial tensions between several US allies and China, which deepened over Beijing’s recent declaration of an “air defense identification zone” in the East China Sea.
Beijing was also angered last week when Washington stiffened its line on territorial disputes in the South China Sea, calling for it to adjust or clarify its claims. Obama’s stops in Japan and South Korea will also bolster close US alliances, at a time of aggravated political tensions between its two Northeast Asian friends. It was an open secret that Obama would call in Japan in April, to take up an invitation from Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who took office in December 2012.
But the decision to add South Korea to the trip came after rising pressure from Seoul and from the Asia policy community in Washington. The move also reflects a desire to signal to North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un that there are no gaps in US and South Korean resolve to counter Pyongyang’s nuclear program and belligerent rhetoric. It also indicates that Obama is keen to avoid dealing a political slight to South Korean President Park Geun-Hye that could result from a presidential visit to Tokyo and not one to Seoul.
Relations between the two nations were severely rattled by Abe’s December visit to the Yasukuni Shrine, which honors war criminals among Japan’s war dead. Obama’s Asia itinerary also includes one noticeable exception — a stop in China. But he is expected to return to the region later in the year for regional summits in Australia, Beijing and Myanmar.
The White House said in a statement that Obama’s April trip will highlight his “ongoing commitment to increase US diplomatic, economic and security engagement with countries in the Asia- Pacific region.” He is certain to try to push negotiations on a vast Trans-Pacific Partnership free trade pact that would include 12 nations, and is seen by some observers as an attempt to meet the economic challenge of a rising China.