WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama will leave Tuesday for a four-nation trip to Asia, looking to recharge a focus on the region, an ambitious initiative that’s been sidetracked by domestic politics and international conflicts elsewhere.
Yet even as Obama attempts to boost his effort to emphasize U.S. interest in Asia, Russian President Vladimir Putin’s intervention in Ukraine is complicating efforts to reassure Asian nations — which share the region with an increasingly assertive China — that the U.S. is committed to their security.
The administration’s efforts to refocus U.S. policy toward Asia were already being questioned in the region with the departure of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who made Asia her first official overseas destination in 2009, and worries that a tight U.S. budget and continuing turmoil in the Middle East were proving too distracting for the administration.
Obama added to those worries last fall when he scrapped plans to attend two summits in Asia because of the federal government budget shutdown. Two of the stops on next week’s trip — Malaysia, where he’ll be the first U.S. president to visit since Lyndon Johnson, and the Philippines — had been on his itinerary last fall. He’ll start the trip with visits to U.S. allies Japan and South Korea.
Asia watchers said there was fear that the U.S. didn’t have the staying power and wouldn’t have the money to back up its claims of commitments to boost economic, security and diplomatic ties with Asia.
“In polite company people won’t say it, but behind closed doors I think they’ll openly ask where the pivot is. They don’t know where it is,” said Victor Cha, a senior adviser and Korea chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington research center.
Russia’s apparent success at slicing off Ukraine’s Crimea region without paying a significant cost is raising fears about whether the U.S. would be reluctant to act if nations in the region faced similar aggression from neighboring countries.
The trip comes as tensions in the region have mounted, with China rattling its neighbors in November by aggressively expanding its airspace to include contested waters between China and Japan.
Regional fears include North Korea’s bellicosity and the possibility that it “could seize a couple of islands in the West Sea and see if (it) can pull off (its) own fait accompli,” Cha said. “Having the president in the region, sending strong messages … and talking with all the allies, I think helps to shape the strategic environment in which nobody comes up with crazy ideas like this” in Asia.
The Ukraine crisis, too, comes on the heels of Obama’s decision last fall to consult with Congress on a possible military strike against Syria, whose regime has been widely blamed for a chemical weapons attack. That decision perplexed Asian nations, analysts said.
“They’ve always counted on strong executives bringing the Congress along or going around Congress to make sure security guarantees are honored,” said Douglas Paal, vice president for studies and director of the Asia program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
But Ukraine isn’t a formal U.S. ally, and the U.S. has long-standing security commitments and alliances with the Asian countries, said Jeffrey Bader, a former Obama administration senior director for East Asian affairs and a senior fellow in international diplomacy at the Brookings Institution.
He called it “fundamentally false” that allies in the region are nervous about the U.S. reaction to Ukraine and see parallels to their region.
“The U.S. has a mutual security treaty with Japan for over 50 years which is NATO-like in its firmness,” Bader said.
National Security Adviser Susan Rice said the administration hadn’t heard any unease from Asian allies, who she noted “look to the United States as a partner of first choice” for help settling territorial disputes and responding to humanitarian and natural disasters.
“There should be no question that where we have alliance commitments and treaty obligations, in the Asia Pacific region or anywhere else in the world, we will uphold those obligations willingly and definitively,” Rice said.
She called the trip “an opportunity to affirm our commitment to the region and its security, and to show that the United States is and will remain for the long term a major security partner and a force for rule of law, stability and democratic development.”
Obama isn’t visiting China on the trip, but the country will loom large. The president’s challenge will be to reassure that the U.S. will be a major partner for the allies without feeding into a narrative that it’s trying to contain China.
“The clear objective was not to force countries in the region to feel they have to make a choice between the U.S. and China,” said Kenneth Lieberthal, a senior fellow at the John L. Thornton China Center who’s a former Clinton administration senior director for Asia. “No country in the region would regard that as desirable.”
Obama’s message may get a boost from an unlikely ally: Congress. Two of the largest congressional delegations in 25 years left for Asia on Friday, and members including House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., and House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan, R-Wis., back an emphasis on Asia, analysts said.
“The message they’re going to bring is that the Congress supports the rebalance and engagement of Asia, and that they’re going to be uncharacteristically bipartisan,” said Michael Green, a former director for Asian affairs at the National Security Council under George W. Bush who’s a senior vice president for Asia and Japan chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
“The rebalance has nothing to do, in some ways, with the White House,” Green said. “It’s the American people, American business, the Congress all get it, and it will continue. … I think the American focus on Asia is not reversible.”