So Obama is off to Asia this week for a quick trip that is inevitably being over-hyped by every Asia analyst on the planet as some major turning point in the US relationship with Asia. It’s not: below is re-printed my original, ‘watch-elites-manipulate-the-Obama-trip’ comment for the Lowy Institute. The spin will be over-the-top as every Asia pundit races for media exposure. Presidential trips are a great opportunity for the analyst community to posture and hyperventilate about how Obama ‘must’ do this, ‘has’ to do that.
Most of that is bunk. A lot of that is 1) analysts trying to demonstrate their own relevance and self-importance – is it surprising that Asia hands defend the Asia pivot so vociferously? But there is also 2), the unwillingness of a lot of Asia hands and hawks to admit that the US does not actually ‘have’ to do anything in Asia. America has huge freedom to move here, and Asian states – both allies and China – need the US way more than we need them. Where would Asian economies be without the US consumer? And even China might be nervous about a US forces withdrawal given the open balancing behavior that would likely spark in Japan, India, Vietnam, and the Philippines. So ignore all the commentary that the US ‘needs’ Asia; the real story is the opposite and that space which that gives the US to play hard-ball on things like Asian mercantilism and North Korea.
“Later this month US President Barack Obama will take a short tour through Asia – to Japan and South Korea in the north, and to Malaysia and the Philippines in the south. The punditry will be overwhelming and almost entirely self-serving. Elites and interests of every stripe will tell Obama what to say, how to say it, how to signal resolve and credibility to China, what US trade policy should be, and so on.
So instead of suggesting yet another laundry list of to-dos, I thought I would look at how the president’s trip will be instrumentalized by relevant parties to pursue their own agendas. A high-profile trip like this will throw light on the intellectual struggle to define the US presence, both in Asia and Washington. Here are some predictions, almost all self-serving, manipulative, and exaggerated:
1. Hawks and Neocons
Post-Crimea, there should be a fair amount of hawk hysteria that US alliances in the region are ‘weakening.’ (Watch CSIS go into overdrive on this here, here, and here.) Obama will be cast as a dovish, dithering appeaser; his ‘red-lines’ around Senkaku and North Korea will be called ‘pink.’ Fox News will intone that regional allies do not ‘trust’ Obama. Vague suggestions will be made that China intends to slice off northern North Korea or snatch Senkaku by the ‘Crimean model,’ even though Chinese irredentism (other than the well-known Taiwan issue) has never been a factor in East Asian international politics. Little empirical evidence will actually be presented for these fears, beyond generalized claims about power politics or ‘Munich.’
This is standard-issue boilerplate from the think-tank community with limited correspondence to the actual social science on credibility. It should instead be read as the US foreign policy community’s desire to station even more forces in Asia, as a general marker of US hegemony, despite strong evidence that US allies are free-riding and growing budgetary competition between US domestic needs and its enormous defense budget.
2. South Korea
To read the South Korean media on the US alliance is to enter a world where the US ‘needs’ South Korea and the prestige captured from a direct relationship with the US is almost as important as the defense guarantee. Expect the South Korean press to push hard the notion that, because the US has parallel alliances with Japan and South Korea, South Korea is just as important to the US as Japan. The South Korean media will gush that South Korea is a ‘bedrock’ or ‘cornerstone’ of the US alliance in Asia. This is turn will be used to claim that Washington does not listen to Seoul enough but should – or otherwise America’s alliances in Asia might fall apart.
That none of that is true is irrelevant. Nationalist self-promotion will be ubiquitous. Competition with Japan is so deeply entrenched in Korean foreign policy thinking, that the US alliance and the president’s trip will almost certainly be instrumentalized for the purpose of elevating Korea against Japan. (Just look at what happened last time the Korean media perceived the US to be tilting toward Japan over Korea.)
Does it even need to be said anymore that the PLA and Chinese hawks will read the trip as yet further proof of US encirclement? I would bet money that the Global Times will run one of its usual vitriolic editorial pieces, complete with the typical line about the US facilitating a ‘return of Japanese militarism.’ (That Japanese militarism never seems to actually return, but is always apparently in the process of doing so, does not appear to reduce the appeal of this hardy chestnut in the Chinese media.) Xi Jinping seems to be more interested in a hawkish, anti-Japanese foreign policy than his predecessors – which is in turn one of the very reasons for Obama’s trip. So it would be a big surprise if the Chinese Communist Party forewent an opportunity to bemoan US ‘hegemonism,’ particularly during the Japan leg of the trip.
For those who fear that China and the US may slip into a downward tit-for-tat spiral toward conflict, the rhetorical sturm-und-drang of these trips is never helpful. Hawks on both sides will be heartened by all the hard talk coming soon.
This too will be a disappointment. Japanese conservatives particularly will use US presidential attention to deflect regional concerns about Pacific War remembrance. Why go through tough introspection when the US superpower is an ally? Why change? That Abe is prime minister only heightens the likelihood of this status quo-endorsing response. If the Japanese leg goes especially well, we may be ‘lucky’ enough to get yet another outburst of historical revisionism, post-Obama trip, from a major Japanese right-wing voice, perhaps along the lines of the NHK flap earlier this year.
In short, a lot of the trip is pre-scripted. It is almost as if these competing elites have assigned roles to play in a drama – what does the US Asian alliance architecture mean? – we have all seen fought out before. So in that sense the sociology of this drama is more interesting than anything likely be said on the trip: each group listed – and others too presumably – are trying to capture the prestige of the US presidency to legitimize their understanding of the alliances.
Finally, two issues that will not receive the attention they should – the issues I would bring up, were I the president – are trade liberalization and allied burden-sharing. The East Asian debate is dominated by security concerns, given China’s South China Sea behavior and the panic ignited by the Crimea annexation. But the long-term structural solution to Chinese belligerence (short of extreme answers like war or revolution) is the continued tying of China into a liberal world order, and the most obvious doorway in is trade. Already China is far more politically liberal today than when began its economic modernization drive.
Next, the long-term security position of the US in Asia, as in Europe, is constantly strained by low allied military expenditures. US budget constraints, an aging population, and Tea Party’s insistence on smaller government will impact the size of the US Asian footprint, regardless of elite hawk resistance (point 1 above). The Asian allies would be wise to adjust.”
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