With attention in Washington centered on the crisis in Ukraine, yesterday, Barack Obama began his eight-day trip to Asia, where he will visit four countries. The U.S. president’s objective is to continue the strategic “pivot” he announced in 2011: giving Asia priority — and, meanwhile, containing China — to the detriment of Europe and the Near East. After all, the U.S. has 85,000 soldiers in Asia, compared to 60,000 in Europe, so even if we haven’t yet realized it on this side of the Atlantic, the Far East is already more important than Old Europe.
The problem is that the crisis in Ukraine has once again placed Europe at the center of the United States’ foreign policy, against Washington’s will. Furthermore, that crisis is only the latest in a string of situations that have grabbed the attention of the Obama administration in the past few months, which have ranged from the NSA spying scandal to the preliminary nuclear deal with Iran, which the president is giving highest priority because he thinks it could end up being his great legacy on foreign policy, together with the end of American involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan.
As if that weren’t enough to make his Asian allies nervous, Obama has again shown his customary indecision in his management of Pacific affairs.
The U.S. has been incapable of containing China in that country’s dispute with Japan over the Senkaku Islands, where Beijing has unilaterally expanded its air space to reaffirm its sovereignty over a great portion of the South China Sea. He has not managed to get Japan and South Korea to significantly improve their relations, either.
First Visit to Malaysia since 1966
The U.S. president will visit both countries, as well as the Philippines and Malaysia. For the latter, this will be the first visit by a U.S. head of state since 1966. It is equally significant that China has not been included in the itinerary.
Add to that the fact that the Trans-Pacific Partnership Free Trade Agreement, which Obama wanted to turn into the core of his strategy in the region, is practically paralyzed, and the arch-famous “pivot” toward Asia is in danger of becoming something as effective as the “reset” of relations with Russia launched by Hillary Clinton in 2009.
As if that weren’t enough, the public aspect of the tour has been threatened by tragic accidents in the region: a sunken ferry in South Korea and a missing plane somewhere in the Indian Ocean. Humanitarian aid is precisely one of the assets the U.S. has in Asia, especially when compared with the tightfistedness China has shown after the typhoon that devastated the Philippines in 2013 and the harshness with which the country has criticized Malaysia in the case of the Boeing 777 that went missing a month ago.
The result is that the tour, meant to highlight the importance of Asia in Washington, is in danger of doing just the opposite and falling into irrelevancy. For now, that appears to be the result of the first two days of the trip, which included an encounter between Obama and the Japanese prime minister, Shinzo Abe, which yielded good words but not a single concrete measure.
Many diplomats in Washington fear that will be the tenor of a trip during which international attention will be, predictably, on the conflict in Ukraine, which seems taken out of the Cold War. Vladimir Putin is the latest character who has insisted on making Obama’s “pivot” much more complicated than the president and his team expected.
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