With one exception, U.S. relations with East Asian countries are better today than when the Obama administration took office. This is no small accomplishment since the Bush administration left Asia in good shape.
Let’s look at the exception first. The one relationship that has gotten worse under U.S. President Barack Obama is perhaps the most important one, between Washington and Tokyo. The fault lies primarily with Japan; a new government took power there, led for the first time ever by the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ), which ran against the policies of the past.
While Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama still pays rhetorical allegiance to the U.S.-Japan alliance relationship as the foundation of his foreign policy, in practice tensions have grown over his apparent decision to walk away from a base-relocation agreement negotiated between the Bush administration and the prior Liberal Democratic Party-led government that had been accepted, as any government-to-government agreement should have been, by the Obama administration.
As we approach the 50th anniversary of the alliance on Jan. 19, both sides are trying hard to get the relationship back on track. This will require patience on Washington’s part and political courage on Tokyo’s. Putting off the decision on relocating Futenma air base until May solves little.
The Bush administration’s major Asian dark spot was North Korea, where its efforts to craft a denuclearization agreement crumbled as Pyongyang walked away from its earlier pledges to verifiably give up its nuclear weapons. Things quickly went from bad to worse as the North welcomed the Obama administration first with a long-range missile test and then with its second-ever nuclear weapons test amid pledges to never return to the six-party talks.
In the face of strict United Nations sanctions and a consistent hardline approach from Washington and Seoul, the North now appears to be relenting at least on the latter point, and the prospects of a resumption of dialogue now appear good.
The relationship that has seen the greatest improvement under the Obama administration is between the U.S. and South Korea. Obama and South Korean President Lee Myung Bak have crafted a joint-vision statement laying out the future course of the alliance relationship and the two seem in lock step when it comes to dealing with North Korea
The big stumbling block as we move forward will be on the Korea-U.S. Free Trade Agreement (KORUS), which Bush and Roh negotiated and which Lee supports and candidate Obama ran against. KORUS makes sense for both sides, but it will take political courage on Obama’s part to get it past Congress. Both sides must also carefully review the milestones associated with the transition to South Korean operation control of its own forces during wartime by 2012. Many South Koreans are unconvinced of the wisdom of this action or at least question the timing, absent a breakthrough with the North.
Nowhere in Asia is Obama more popular than in Southeast Asia, especially in Indonesia, which claims him as a semi-native son (since he lived there briefly as a child). Even his failure to visit Jakarta during his first trip to the region — to Singapore for the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) Leaders Meeting — did not weaken the enthusiasm, but if another year passes without an Indonesia visit of some substance his “soft power” will begin to erode.
Meanwhile, his outstretched hand to Burma/Myanmar, while failing to bring about the desired release of Aung San Suu Kyi, has increased the prospects of deeper cooperation with the rest of ASEAN, as this 10-nation grouping (under Indonesian leadership) seems to finally be getting serious about promoting human rights and good governance.
Finally, Obama’s decision to initiate a senior-level strategic dialogue with Beijing represents a clear desire to move U.S.-China relations to a new, higher level of cooperation on a diverse range of issues ranging from countering proliferation to combating climate change. Obama was persuasive enough to get Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao to show up at the Copenhagen Climate Change Conference, but not successful in getting the Chinese to agree to anything beyond blaming the West for all the world’s climate concerns.
It remains unclear if China really wants a strategic relationship with the U.S. or just wants to say that it has one. On the surface, Sino-U.S. relations are as good or better than ever. But, as Mark Twain once said, “even if you’re on the right track, you’ll get run over if you just sit there.” Getting China moving in the right direction will be 2010’s challenge.
In short, as Obama looks back on his first year, he can be generally pleased with his Asia policy thus far. But his first order of business for the new year is getting U.S.-Japan relations back on track, sustaining the positive momentum on both halves of the Korean Peninsula and in Southeast Asia, and then testing Beijing’s sincerity about being a “responsible stakeholder,” a term (and aspiration) left over from the Bush years and a hope still largely unfulfilled.
Ralph A. Cossa is president of the Pacific Forum CSIS, a Honolulu-based nonprofit research institute affiliated with the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.