February 6, 2014 4:54 am

Obama walks into crossfire of Asian tensions

US President Barack Obama listens as Chinese President Xi Jinping answers a question following their bilateral meeting at the Annenberg Retreat at Sunnylands in Rancho Mirage, California, on June 7 2013©AFP

US President Barack Obama has been drawn into the tense relations between Japan and South Korea, America’s two closest allies in the region, even before he has officially revealed his planned Asia trip in April.

The sensitivities surrounding his itinerary highlight the difficulties facing the US as it seeks to implement its “pivot” to Asia amid a contest for power in the region with an increasingly confident China.

Tensions in the Pacific are high because of territorial disputes between China and its neighbours, in addition to concerns in Beijing and Seoul about the actions and rhetoric of Shinzo Abe, Japan’s prime minister.

Mr Obama is likely to travel to Japan, Malaysia and the Philippines as part of an attempt to recover ground after he cancelled a visit to Asia last year. But he is also coming under pressure to include a stop in South Korea, a country barely on speaking terms with the Abe government.

“At a time when relations between Japan and South Korea are so poor, it would look pretty bad if he went to Tokyo and skipped Seoul,” said Victor Cha, a former director of Asian affairs at the National Security Council. “It would be a huge embarrassment to [South Korean president] Park Geun-hye.”

Sino-Japanese relations have been hit hard by the escalating battle over the Japanese-administered Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea, which China claim and call the Diaoyu. Beijing was incensed when Mr Abe recently visited Yasukuni Shrine, which honours Japan’s war dead including a handful of war criminals.

Meanwhile, the US, Japan and South Korea criticised China for creating an air defence identification zone – a kind of early warning system – over the East China Sea, describing the action as a provocative move during a tense period.

The US has been particularly frustrated at the deterioration in relations between Tokyo and Seoul, as it believes that relationship is important to help check the rise of China in the region, which is one reason that some high-profile Asia experts in the US have been urging Mr Obama to visit South Korea.

The White House on Wednesday said Mr Obama’s travel plans had not been finalised. Asked on Tuesday about a possible visit to South Korea by the president, Danny Russel, the top state department Asia official, said: “I feel confident that there are multiple opportunities for President Obama to travel to Asia.”

US-Philippine defence talks to take time

Philip Goldberg, the US ambassador to the Philippines, this week said negotiations for an increased US military presence in the country may take longer than initially expected.

Speaking to chief executives at some of the biggest domestic and foreign companies in the Philippines on Wednesday, Mr Goldberg said there were important “issues that need to be resolved” . . . 

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In the year since both Ms Park and Mr Abe have been in office, the two leaders have yet to meet. Tensions built up last year over South Korean unhappiness at what it sees as insufficient remorse by Japan for its wartime behaviour in the country, while Tokyo has accused Seoul of adopting an intransigent position.

These tensions were only exacerbated when Mr Abe visited Yasukuni. “The visit hurts us, it puts us in a difficult position,” said Kurt Campbell, the former top state department Asia official. “Tensions between Japan and South Korea cause enormous anxiety in Washington.”

A South Korean government spokeswoman said Seoul hoped that Mr Obama would visit during his trip, following an invitation from Ms Park last year.

“South Korea has always felt that when it came to US priorities in the region, South Korea is second best,” said James Kim, an analyst at the Asian Institute for Policy Studies in Seoul, adding that given their increased economic clout in the world, they would now “like to be considered equals with Japan”.

When the US unveiled the pivot in 2012, it angered China which saw the move as the US becoming too aggressive in its back yard. But Ian Storey, a security expert at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies in Singapore, says China is less worried now because of a realisation that the pivot does not involve any major changes.

Mr Cha said a short trip by Mr Obama to Seoul could accomplish a number of goals, including trying to build momentum behind the 12-nation Trans-Pacific Partnership trade talks, which Seoul has said it might join, and trying to win Seoul’s support for a new cost-sharing agreement for US forces in the country.

Wherever Mr Obama goes in Asia, China is likely to be top of the agenda. In addition to trying to ease tension over the Senkaku, the US president will face growing calls for help from the Philippines, which has been the most vocal southeast Asian nation about maritime challenges from China.

As part of its “rebalance” – as the Obama administration has rebranded the pivot – the US is trying to reach an agreement with the Philippines to base American troops temporarily in the country in a kind of “rotational” basing agreement similar to an arrangement the US has with Australia.

Mr Storey added that officials in Asia have become increasingly sceptical that the “pivot” has any teeth, which has been reinforced by the perception that John Kerry, US secretary of state, places more importance on dealing with the Middle East.

“People look back at the days of [then secretary of state] Hillary Clinton and Kurt Campbell because they were much more engaged, while [Mr] Kerry seems very disengaged,” said Mr Storey.

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PRIORITIES FOR ASIAN COUNTRIES ON OBAMA’S VISITING LIST

Japan: Sino-Japanese relations and regional security issues; Trans-Pacific Partnership trade talks (TPP).

Philippines: South China Sea maritime regional disputes; US base deal.

Malaysia: First US presidential visit to the moderate Muslim American ally since Lyndon Johnson in 1966.

(Possible) South Korea: Seoul has expressed interest in possibly joining the TPP; regional tensions with China and Japan.

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