The U.S. balancing act in Asia

China loomed large in U.S. President Barack Obama’s recent trip through four Asian countries, a trip in which he tried to allay concerns among allies about Washington’s security commitments in the region — without antagonizing Beijing.

In a sense, Obama appeared to be making it clear that the United States would not risk jeopardizing its relations with China even as he seeks to solidify defense ties with its traditional allies. Japan must not lose sight of the overall picture of the U.S. policy in the region as it continues to face strained ties with its Northeast Asian neighbors.

Obama’s April 23-29 visit to Japan, South Korea, Malaysia and the Philippines came after his administration’s policy of rebalancing U.S. foreign policy to focus on the Asia-Pacific was seen as lacking in substance and as his responses to the Syrian and Ukraine crises were perceived as weak.

In Tokyo, Obama gave assurances to Prime Minister Shinzo Abe that the Senkaku Islands — the source of a bitter territorial row with China that has severely strained bilateral ties — are covered by U.S. defense obligations under its security treaty with Japan.

He signed a new security pact with Manila that paves the way for more U.S. troops and ships to rotate through the Philippines just as that country’s maritime disputes with Beijing in the South China Sea intensifies.

Speaking to American troops stationed in South Korea to keep watch over North Korea as the Pyongyang regime continues its missile and nuclear weapons programs, the president said the United States “will not hesitate to use our military might” to defend its allies.

At the same time, Obama tried in many of these occasions to make sure he did not alienate China, which views the U.S. rebalancing pivot to Asia as a policy of attempting to contain Beijing’s growing assertiveness in the region.

“Our goal is not to counter China. Our goal is not to contain China,” Obama said alongside Philippine President Benigno Aquino after clinching the defense pact, which brings back a U.S. military presence to the country for the first time since the Philippines closed two of the largest American bases in Asia in 1992. “We welcome China’s peaceful rise. We have a constructive relationship with China.”

Obama repeated similar messages during the news conference with Abe in Tokyo: “We have strong relations with China. They are a critical country not just to the region, but to the world. With a huge population, a growing economy, we want to continue to encourage the peaceful rise of China. I think there’s enormous opportunities for trade, development, working on common issues like climate change with China.”

He also noted that China’s role is “critically important” in resolving the problems over North Korea.

Abe touted a robust security alliance with the U.S. as the cornerstone of peace and security in the region, and both leaders said Japan and the U.S. would oppose any unilateral action to change the region’s status quo “through coercion and intimidation” — an apparent reference to the repeated incursions of Chinese ships in and around Japan’s territorial waters around the Senkakus.

Obama also emphasized that the dispute over the Senkakus needs to be resolved peacefully — without escalating the situation or taking provocative actions. He said he told Abe that “it would be a profound mistake to continue to see escalation around this issue rather than dialogue and confidence-building measures between Japan and China.”

Political dialogue between Japan and China remains stalled since tensions escalated over the Senkakus dispute in 2012. Washington does not welcome the frigid ties between its key Asian ally and the region’s rising power. It expressed its “disappointment” when Abe visited Tokyo’s Yasukuni Shrine in December because the move was certain to provoke Beijing further due to the shrine’s links to Japan’s wartime past.

Some lawmakers close to Abe, meanwhile, openly expressed their frustration that the Obama administration is putting priority on its relations with China over Japan. During his visit to Tokyo, Obama appeared to be carefully trying to avoid taking sides.

The Abe administration says that a solid security alliance with the U.S. is crucial in the face of China’s growing maritime assertiveness, including the dispute over the Senkakus. Abe believes that his bid to lift the nation’s self-imposed ban on engaging in collective self-defense with its allies, by reinterpreting the Constitution, would contribute to making the alliance stronger. Tokyo reportedly had sought Obama’s commitment on defending the Senkakus under the security pact — the first such statement by a U.S. president — as a key result of the talks to keep China in check.

However, it would obviously be unwise for Japan to count solely on that statement — which Obama himself even appeared to be playing down as he said the position was nothing new and merely repeating what other U.S. officials said earlier — to stabilize its relations with countries in the region. The Abe government needs to take concrete actions of its own to improve Japan’s ties with China, as well as with South Korea.