With budgetary constraints being a major issue, President Barack Obama has largely forgone international travel over the last few years. With Asia becoming an increasingly turbulent but vital region amid the expansion of Chinese power, however, President Obama is looking to reassert American presence in the region.
Obama will visit Japan, South Korea, Malaysia, and the Philippines in April. All four nations are in key locations for containing and buffering against China’s expansion. The Philippines and Japan currently find themselves in tense relations with China regarding the possession of various islands.
Obama: South East Asia will be a key focus
The choice of Malaysia and the Philippines demonstrates just how important South East Asia is to the United States and its strategy to buffer against China. South East Asia lies at the heart of vital trade routes and several nations in the region are emerging as economic powerhouses. Yet the region is a collection of smaller countries, none of which have the capability to challenge China on their own.
South East Asia has collectively enjoyed some of the world’s best economic growth rates, with the Philippines, Thailand, and Vietnam performing particularly well. Meanwhile, Indonesia is home to over 250 million people making it one of the most populous countries in Asia.
President Obama was previously forced to cancel visits the Philippines and Malaysia due to budget constraints.
East Asia remains important
Both South Korea and Japan are among the United States’ closest allies and are host to two of America’s largest overseas military forces. Both nations are also very close to China and could be thought of as the “front line” of any containment efforts.
So far, South Korea has not found itself in any major diplomatic rows with China. China, for its part, has tried to be a constraint to North Korea when possible and has otherwise not meddled deeply in South Korean affairs. That being said, the South Koreans are well aware that China’s rise will alter regional dynamics.
Japan, on the other hand, remains one of China’s principle rivals in the region. Japan and China have been drawn into conflict numerous times over the course of history. The most recent conflict was during World War II when the Japanese invaded China, committing numerous atrocities throughout the course of the war.
While the past has left a bad taste in the mouths of both countries, it’s the potential for future conflicts that represents the biggest possibility for destabilizing relations. Tensions have been rising over ownership of the Senkaku islands and both countries have been increasing their military spending and capabilities.
Since World War II Japan has constitutionally restricted its military expenditures and taken a defense-only posture. Now, with China emerging as a superpower, Japan has begun to reevaluate its position and so far Prime Minister Abe has been pushing for increased military spending, a move the United States also supports.
Asia will be key to US interests
Just six months ago Obama was forced to abandon a visit to Asia amid a power struggle in Congress. This damaged America’s reputation abroad, providing further fuel to the belief that China is now the region’s premier power. If the United States wishes to remain the world’s premier superpower, it must maintain its influence in Asia.
This will be no easy task given China’s economic strength, but several factors could play into the United States’ favor. Many Asian countries are suspicious of both China and the United States. Given America’s distance from Asia, however, China is often regarded as the most immediate threat.
At the same time the United States’ ambitious are often perceived as more benign, at least within Asia. China, on the other hand, has made it clear that it intends to be the regions’ premier power and so far has not hesitated from throwing its weight around.
If the United States can use these circumstances against China, the possibility of building up an alliance capable of containing the so-called Middle Kingdom would become very real. Alone, the United States will have trouble buffering against Chinese expansion amid a period of financial uncertainty.