By Ralph Cossa
With one important exception, U.S. relations with the countries of East Asia are better today than when the Obama administration took office. This is no small accomplishment since, again with one (different) exception, relations were already quite good — the Bush administration left Asia in pretty sound shape.
Let's look at the exceptions first. The one relationship that has gotten worse under President Obama is perhaps the most important one, between Washington and Tokyo. The fault lies primarily with Japan; a new government took power there, led for the first time ever by the Democratic Party of Japan, which ran against the policies of the past. While Prime Minister Hatoyama still pays rhetorical allegiance to the centrality of the U.S.-Japan alliance relationship as the foundation of his foreign policy, in practice tensions have grown over his apparent decision to at least delay (and perhaps walk away from) a base relocation agreement negotiated between the Bush administration and the prior Liberal Democratic Party-led government, which had been accepted, as any government-to-government agreement should have been, by the Obama administration.
As we approach the 50th anniversary of the alliance this Tuesday, both sides are trying hard to get the relationship back on track; witness the meeting between Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Japanese Foreign Minister Katsuya Okada earlier last week. This will require greater patience on Washington's part and some political courage on Tokyo's.
The Bush administration's major Asian dark spot was North Korea, where its efforts to craft a denuclearization agreement crumbled as Pyongyang walked away from its earlier pledges to verifiably give up its nuclear weapons. Things quickly went from bad to worse as the North welcomed the Obama administration first with a long-range missile test and then with its second-ever nuclear weapons test (the first was in October 2006) amid pledges to never return to the Bush-initiated Six-Party Talks (involving North and South Korea, China, Japan, Russia, and the U.S.). In the face of strict United Nations sanctions and a consistent hardline approach from Washington and Seoul, the North now appears to be relenting at least on the latter point, and the prospects of a resumption of dialogue now appear good (even though the prospects of actual denuclearization are as low as ever).
The relationship that has seen the greatest improvement under the Obama administration is between the U.S. and South Korea.
Presidents Obama and Lee Myung-bak have crafted a joint vision statement laying out the future course of the alliance relationship and the two seem in lock step when it comes to dealing with North Korea — Bush was either too soft (according to Lee) or too harsh (according to Lee's predecessor, Roh Moo-hyun). The big stumbling block as we move forward will be on the Korea-U.S. Free Trade Agreement, which Bush and Roh negotiated and which Lee supports and candidate Obama ran against. KORUS makes sense for both sides, but it will take some political courage on Obama's part to get it past Congress.
Nowhere in Asia is Obama more popular than in Southeast Asia, especially in Indonesia, which claims him as a semi-native son (since he lived there briefly as a child). Even his failure to visit Jakarta during his first trip to the region — to Singapore for the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation Leaders Meeting — did not weaken the enthusiasm. However, if another year passes without an Indonesia visit of some substance, his "soft power" will begin to erode.
Meanwhile, his outstretched hand to Burma/Myanmar, while failing (at least so far) to bring about the desired release of Aung San Suu Kyi, has increased the prospects of deeper cooperation with the rest of ASEAN, as this 10-nation grouping under Indonesian leadership seems to be finally getting serious about promoting human rights and good governance, a point stressed by Clinton during her East-West Center speech last week.
Finally, Obama's decision to initiate a senior-level strategic dialogue with Beijing (led by Clinton) represents a clear desire to move U.S.-China relations to a new, higher level of cooperation on a diverse range of issues ranging from countering proliferation to combating climate change. Obama was persuasive enough to get Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao to show up at the Copenhagen Climate Change Conference, but failed to get the Chinese to agree to anything beyond blaming the West for all the world's climate concerns. It remains unclear if China really wants a strategic relationship with the U.S. or just wants to say that it has one. On the surface, Sino-U.S. relations are as good or better than ever. But, as Mark Twain once said, "Even if you're on the right track, you'll get run over if you just sit there." Getting China to move in the right direction will be this year's challenge.
In short, as President Obama looks back on his first year, he can be generally pleased with his Asia policy so far. But his first order of business for the new year is getting U.S.-Japan relations back on track; sustaining the positive momentum on both halves of the Korean Peninsula and in Southeast Asia; and then testing Beijing's sincerity about being a "responsible stakeholder," a term (and aspiration) left over from the Bush years and a hope still largely unfulfilled.