Obama wants to reassure Asia of his commitment — security commitments in Japan, South Korea and The Philippines, and trade in all those plus Malaysia. Obama’s job is not easy.
The Abbott government and the Obama administration work together very closely in Asia. Washington has vast intellectual resources devoted to Asia, much more than Canberra, but Asia is a much bigger priority in Canberra. So we have more focus.
Further, a leader interacts with other leaders in a way that officials don’t. The Americans were keen to get a full readout on Abbott’s visit. Abbott has had remarkable success in Asia. The Obama administration is glad to see it.
There are two key elements to Abbott’s Asia success. One is energetic trade initiatives. The other is steadfastness and predictability on strategic issues.
Abbott adopted the John Howard template for relations with China. Don’t back down on security issues, such as protesting Beijing’s provocative declaration of an Air Defence Identification Zone over the disputed Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands. But don’t lecture the Chinese in their own country and concentrate on where you can agree, namely trade.
Geo-strategic steadfastness translates into strong support for Japan, including closer security co-operation. It also meant weathering a furious storm arising out of the Edward Snowden revelations with Indonesia.
But now relations with Jakarta are substantially back to normal. Canberra has not given away anything on intelligence while, above all else, it has stopped the inflow of illegal immigration on boats from Indonesia.
Would anyone now think Abbott was wrong to stick to his guns? He has also had one bit of luck. The calm, effective handling of the search for Malaysia Airlines MH370 saw Abbott become ubiquitous on global media, all over Asia, Europe and the US. The image projected was one of calm, solid, reliable leadership. It has given him an enviable brand.
One final note on Abbott. In announcing the purchase all up of 72 Joint Strike Fighters, the Prime Minister indicated he was sympathetic to buying more and that there would be a close look at what variant of the JSF an extra squadron might be.
No one has picked this up, but what Abbott was talking about was the possibility of buying short take-off and vertical landing JSFs, which could be placed on the navy’s big LHD ships to transform them in effect into aircraft carriers. Abbott is planning an Australian Defence Force that has much greater power projection capabilities. This will make us a more valuable ally to the US.
It is all part, really, of an Abbott-led Australian “pivot’’ to Asia, giving flesh to his “more Jakarta less Geneva’’ foreign policy. The key task for Obama’s, by comparison, is to shore up the US position in Asia, to give greater life to his Asia pivot, now called rebalance.
In Japan, Obama said the US accepted the Senkaku Islands were administered by Japan and this had the backing of the US-Japan alliance.
Any unilateral effort to change the status quo would be opposed by the US-Japan alliance. This has been the US position for some time, but it has not before come explicitly from the lips of the President.
Washington is technically neutral on the many territorial disputes in Asia, but it is putting its alliance behind opposition to any forceful change to the status quo. That means China.
In The Philippines, Obama will announce an agreement with Manila to allow much greater and more frequent deployment of US forces in The Philippines, without resuming US permanent military bases there. Manila is motivated by its impotence in the face of Chinese territorial aggression over the islands of the South China Sea that it claims, notwithstanding their proximity to The Philippines.
The US position in Asia remains structurally strong. More than 90 per cent of South Koreans support the US alliance. In The Philippines more than 80 per cent believe the US plays a positive role.
The situation is more complex in Malaysia, where no president has visited since Lyndon Johnson. Obama believes Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Tun Razak is a moderate, relatively liberal and modernising figure.
But Najib is under some challenge from the ethnic chauvinist elements of his ruling United Malays National Organisation. These groups are prey to conspiracy theories about the US and are mobilising against a key Obama initiative, the proposed Trans- Pacific Partnership trade pact.
How to score Obama’s pivot to Asia? It has three elements — military, economic, diplomatic.
On military matters, I would give it a B, possibly moving up to B+ on this trip.
The redeployment of US naval resources to the Pacific is under way. US littoral ships are rotating into Singapore. The marine rotations in Darwin are increasing. The US-Japan alliance is intensifying. The Philippines agreement is a big step forward.
As against this, Obama’s setting of a red line in Syria, which he then ran away from, and the perceived weakness in the face of Russian aggression in Crimea — there are still no significant sanctions in place — has diminished, by no means fatally, US military credibility.
On the economic side, progress with the TPP is slow. Obama has pitched this as a strategic initiative, but it is bogged down in the line-by-line negotiations of all trade agreements, especially biggies like the TPP, which involves 12 nations and 40 per cent of the global economy. Most importantly, Obama has expended no domestic political capital on the TPP.
In Washington, he never talks about it. There is no effort to get his fellow Democrats in Congress to give him fast-track trade authority.
In marking the economic side, you would say that, despite the repeated deadline extensions, Obama is yet to submit any work and can’t yet get a grade.
On the diplomatic side, Obama so far gets a C-, though this trip might take it to a C+.
In six years in office, Obama has made five trips to Asia. That doesn’t indicate a belief that Asia is the US’s future. He has also cancelled a number of trips to Asia at the last minute, causing intense embarrassment to his hosts.
Secretary of State John Kerry has wasted an absurd year on futile efforts to broker a permanent Israeli-Palestinian settlement when the wider Middle East context makes this obviously impossible.
There is devastating material on Kerry in Bob Carr’s diary. Virtually all Asian commentators judged that Kerry was far less interested in Asia than his predecessor, Hillary Clinton. We now know this was the considered judgment of official Australia. Carr recounts the failed Australian effort to get Kerry to make his first overseas trip as Secretary of State to Asia.
He quotes a cable from our ambassador to the US, Kim Beazley, who says: “I have not found it hard to get to see senators. Kerry has been impossible. He would not see Kevin (Rudd) on one of his visits ... Kerry wants big achievements. Erroneously, Asia is not perceived here as the locus of big achievements. He probably sees Europe and the Middle East providing those opportunities.’’ The Australian