OSAKA – When U.S. Vice President Joe Biden arrives in Japan on Monday to start a three-nation tour that will also take him to South Korea and China, his most urgent task will be to assure Prime Minister Shinzo Abe that the U.S. stands firmly against China’s new air defense identification zone, which encompasses the Senkaku Islands, even as he prods Tokyo to help ease tensions with Beijing.
It’s an important visit for the longer term as well. Biden faces the further challenge of convincing Tokyo, Seoul and Beijing that the Obama administration’s touted pivot to Asia won’t fail due to budget constraints in Washington that will likely impact the U.S. military presence in the region or to growing skepticism in Congress regarding the Trans-Pacific Partnership free trade agreement.
Though previous U.S. administrations emphasized Asia, the idea of a U.S. pivot, shift or rebalance dates back to autumn 2011, when the Obama administration announced that as wars in Afghanistan and Iraq wind down, U.S. military assets would be relocated to the Asia-Pacific region. In August 2012, Ashton Carter, deputy secretary of defense, offered specific examples of what a rebalance would look like.
“We intend to have 60 percent of our naval assets based in the Pacific by 2020. We will have a net increase of one aircraft carrier, four destroyers, three Zumwalt destroyers, 10 littoral combat ships and two submarines in the Pacific in the coming years,” Carter said.
In addition, B-1 bombers and reconnaissance planes, manned and unmanned, would be relocated to the Pacific. But amid speculation of a reduction in the number of army personnel or major shifts around Asia of marines in the coming years, Carter said only that the army in South Korea would be protected from budget changes and that there would be no reduction in the Marine Corps’ presence west of the international date line.
That was the plan. But with the passage of the Budget Control Act in 2011, the Pentagon must cut a total of $500 billion over a 10-year period, unless Congress can reach a deal that reverses some of the planned military reductions.
Congress has until the end of this month to reach agreement on stopping the latest round of defense cuts — worth $19 billion — that are set to start in January. Under the 2011 act, the size of budget cuts is expected to rise substantially from about 2015 onward.
In August, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said that in the worst-case scenario the army would be reduced by 380,000 troops and the marines from just under 200,000 to 150,000. Pentagon officials admit that it would be very challenging to maintain current Asia rebalancing plans in that case.
Administration officials from President Barack Obama on downhave rushed to reassure Asian allies, including Japan and South Korea, that the budget problems in Washington will not affect America’s military commitment to the region. Biden will likely make similar noises to Abe on Monday.
The other part of the U.S. rebalance to Asia is the Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement. On Dec. 7, trade ministers from the 12 nations involved in the TPP negotiations will meet in Singapore, where they hope to finalize an agreement. Biden and Abe are expected to discuss the TPP in some detail.
Obama wants the negotiations concluded by the end of this year. He is pushing for Congress to give his administration fast-track negotiation authority, meaning it would not be able to amend or filibuster any agreement brought to it for approval.
But over the past six months, opposition to the TPP has grown in the U.S., and clashes with Congress over the budget forced Obama to cancel a trip to Asia in October, where he had hoped to personally push leaders to conclude the TPP negotiations.
Then, in mid-November, 151 congressional Democrats and 25 Republicans told the Obama administration they were opposed to granting fast-track authority.
“While your administration’s goal was to sign a TPP free trade agreement at the October Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit, we believe that to date the process has failed to provide adequate consultation with Congress. Twentieth-century ‘fast track’ is simply not appropriate for 21st-century agreements and must be replaced. The U.S. cannot afford another trade agreement that replicates the mistakes of the past,” the House Democrats said in a letter to the president.
Both parties and houses of Congress are growing skeptical in particular of the TPP’s ability to prevent currency manipulation. Some 230 members of the House and 60 members of the Senate are demanding that the TPP provide measures to counter such manipulation. But there was no discussion of that issue at recently concluded talks in Salt Lake City. TPP opponents noted that this was just one of numerous issues left unresolved.
“Controversy is growing in many TPP nations about demanded trade-offs relating to medicine prices, Internet freedom, financial regulation and other sensitive matters,” said Lori Wallach, director of the Washington-based Public Citizen’s Global Trade Watch, following the Salt Lake City talks.
Biden and Abe may comment on the next round of TPP negotiations in Singapore starting on Dec. 7. But since the vice president’s schedule will likely be dominated by defusing the crisis and increasing regional cooperation to prevent conflict, the timing of his trip to East Asia is particularly relevant.
However, he will not visit Taiwan, which has a huge stake in the ADIZ controversy. Misato Matsuoka, a doctoral researcher in political science and international studies at the University of Warwick, said it was unlikely Japan would want to discuss what Taiwan’s role might be in the latest clash over the Senkakus, at least not directly.
“While China has been expanding its ADIZ, it seems to be difficult for Abe’s government to suggest new initiatives to cooperate with Taiwan, due to Taiwan’s delicate position among China, the U.S. and Japan. But there is a possibility to propose a bilateral air transport agreement, for instance,” she said.
Ultimately, however, the future U.S. role in Asia, particularly East Asia, rests on convincing the region that Washington is not going to reduce its presence and can still provide leadership in the face of a growing China.
With Congress demanding budget cuts and midterm elections in November, the Obama administration will have its hands full domestically in 2014.
Biden, who is considered exceptionally well-versed in Asia, has his work cut out for him in convincing leaders in the region that the administration will not get distracted with domestic politics and back up with action its rhetoric about an Asian rebalance.