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Obama’s pivot to Asia: Rebalance and reassure

by Jeff Kingston

Special To The Japan Times

Summits are all about symbolism and optics and on that score U.S. President Barack Obama’s swing through Asia was a qualified success. Another few nails were hammered into the coffin of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) with officials now edging toward a face saving TPP-Lite, but Americans paid little attention, mostly envying Tokyo’s outstanding sushi. Asia basked in the attention after 18 long months since his last visit, a period when the downside of a Pax Sinica grew more apparent. Indeed, Obama Tour 2014 underscored the growing importance of China in the region and shared anxieties about its rise.

On the eve of his trip Obama made clear where the United States stands: “Our engagement with China does not and will not come at the expense of Japan.” The U.S. State Department also issued a clear warning to China not to underestimate U.S. determination to defend Japan’s administrative control over the Senkaku Islands despite Washington’s ineffectual response to Russia’s land-grab in Crimea. Lest anyone get the wrong impression, Obama also maintained the U.S. is not pursuing a containment policy toward China. Right, good luck on that spin.

Clearly, World War II casts a very long shadow into the 21st century while Cold War divisions and antagonisms linger. In Tokyo, Obama stood next to Prime Minister Shinzo Abe while affirming that, “Our treaty commitment to Japan’s security is absolute, and Article 5 covers all territories under Japan’s administration, including the Senkaku Islands.”

When asked at the news conference, “Are you saying that the U.S. would consider using military force were China to have some sort of military incursion in those islands to protect those islands?”, Obama dodged the question by restating the U.S. position that it doesn’t take a position on “final sovereignty” over the disputed islets claimed by China as the Diaoyu. He declared Washington’s opposition to the use of force or coercion to impose a unilateral change to Japan’s administrative control over the islets while emphasizing the need to pursue dialogue and confidence-building measures.

Abe beamed as the U.S. president publically told China ‘hands off” although Obama’s support for dialogue also implies that Tokyo’s insistence that there is no territorial dispute to discuss is a dead-end. As Obama subsequently said in Seoul, “Our primary interest is making sure that international norms and rule of law are upheld and that disputes of this sort are resolved through peaceful, diplomatic means.” So it is a dispute?

Obama did not address the bilateral rift over history caused by Abe’s visit to Yasukuni Shrine at the end of 2013. Washington’s swift and sharp rebuke, expressing “disappointment,” was disappointing to Abe and fellow reactionaries, while China and South Korea relished some New Year’s schadenfreude. The chill seemed to linger at the April 24 Tokyo press conference, as the Barack-Shinzo buddy show appeared one-sided with Abe referring to “Barack” 11 times in his prepared remarks while Obama used “Shinzo” only once. Abe was asked about his Yasukuni pilgrimage and he explained that at the shrine he visited Chinreisha, the memorial to all soldiers regardless of nationality, but this artful deflection is unconvincing.

Indeed, Ezra Vogel, a senior Asia hand at Harvard University, voiced his own disappointment in Abe over Yasukuni, stating in an Asahi interview that he hoped Abe would be more pragmatic. Vogel noted that the Yushukan Museum on the grounds of Yasukuni, “has displays that justify Japan’s wartime aggression in Asia. That would be unthinkable in Germany.” He also pointed out that Yasukuni reinforces, “from the eyes of foreigners, (that) there is a decisive lack of awareness among the Japanese that they were the aggressors with respect to neighboring nations.” There is, “a need for Japan to continue apologizing as the aggressor,” Vogel added. Regarding U.S. concerns that Abe is something of a loose cannon, Vogel noted, “there is the worry that Abe will do something provocative toward China or South Korea.” Asked if the U.S. would militarily help Japan defend the Senkaku Islands, Vogel carefully replied, “If there was no provocation by Japan, and China clearly launched an attack, there would be both a desire and meaning to helping Japan.”

In Seoul, Obama condemned Japan’s “comfort women” system as “a terrible, egregious violation of human rights. Those women were violated in ways that, even in the midst of war, was shocking. And they deserve to be heard; they deserve to be respected; and there should be an accurate and clear account of what happened. I think Prime Minister Abe recognizes, and certainly the Japanese people recognize, that the past is something that has to be recognized honestly and fairly.” It is interesting that Obama only “thinks” Abe gets it, implying he may not, while he knows the Japanese people understand the moral demands of historical responsibility.

It looks bad that Washington had to pressure a reluctant Abe to declare in March that he would not overturn the 1993 Kono Statement acknowledging responsibility and apologizing for the comfort women system.

Abe apparently understands that 21st-century transnational norms and values regarding human rights and gender violence permit no leeway on this issue, stating, “My heart is aching for the fate of those women who had to go through indescribable pain. The 21st century is the century when women’s rights should be better preserved.” Ongoing talks with Seoul are a positive sign while a Diet investigation aimed at discrediting comfort women’s testimony yet again puts Abe behind the eight ball of revisionist history.

On his final stop in Asia, Obama stopped in the Philippines where the U.S. signed a defense cooperation agreement that upgrades U.S. access to bases there that once were cornerstones of the U.S. Cold War military presence in Asia. After the U.S.-backed despot Ferdinand Marcos was ousted from power in 1986, the Americans were told to leave in 1991. The new pact sidesteps the constitutional ban on permanent U.S. military bases by offering “temporary” access and the right to “preposition” U.S. military aircraft and ships while allowing Filipino base commanders access to the joint base facilities. The 10-year pact is aimed at backstopping Manila in its standoff with China over disputed reefs and shoals.

The Global Times, a nationalist tabloid in China, zinged the Obama tour: “Washington and its allies’ arrangements to contain China will probably end up in vain. They have no chips to bargain with China.” Beijing’s blustering overlooks that its dubious claim to most of the South China Sea and militarizing its territorial disputes across the region have stoked an Arc of Anxiety stretching from New Delhi to Tokyo. Ending Cold War II is not just Washington’s problem.

Jeff Kingston is the director of Asian Studies, Temple University Japan.

  • Chandrakant Kulkarni

    ” ..an Arc of Anxiety stretching from New Delhi to Tokyo”…precisely correct words! Jay ho, Jeff!