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Media Call on President Obama's Trip to Asia

Speakers: Sheila A. Smith, Senior Fellow for Japan Studies, and Joshua Kurlantzick, Senior Fellow for Southeast Asia
Presider: James M. Lindsay, Senior Vice President, Director of Studies, and Maurice R. Greenberg Chair
April 22, 2014

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OPERATOR: Ladies and gentlemen, thank you for your patience in holding. We now have your speakers in conference.

Please be aware that each of your lines is in a listen-only mode. At the conclusion of today's presentation, we will open the floor for questions. At that time, instructions will be given as to the procedure to follow if you would like to ask a question.

It is now my pleasure to turn today's conference over to Jim Lindsay.

Sir, you may begin.

LINDSAY: Thank you.

Welcome, everyone, to this Council on Foreign Relations on-the- record media call on President Obama's upcoming trip to Asia.

I'm Jim Lindsay, senior vice president and director of studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. And I'm being joined by Sheila Smith, who is senior fellow for Japan studies here at CFR, and Joshua Kurlantzick, who is senior fellow for Southeast Asia.

Josh is the author of "Democracy in Retreat," which was recently released in paperback. And Sheila is the author of the forthcoming book, "Intimate Rivals: Japan's Domestic Politics and a Rising China."

Josh and Sheila have both written extensively about the upcoming trip on their blog, Asia Unbound, which is a group blog composed of posts from CFR's Asia fellows. You can find it as @CRF.org.

Our format for today's conversation is I will ask a few opening questions of Sheila and Josh before opening the call from (sic) questions from people on the line.

Again, our topic is President Obama's scheduled tour of Asia.

And if I may, Sheila, I'd like to begin with you. The president is scheduled to travel to Japan, South Korea, Malaysia and the Philippines.

There are at least two notable aspects of the trip. One, he's not stopping in China. And, number two, he's not attending any multilateral or regional events.

And so, perhaps, Sheila, you can tell us from your perspective what it is that the administration is trying to accomplish on this trip and how will it know whether or not it's had a success.

SMITH: Terrific, Jim. Thank you. Thank you for letting me be here (ph) with you and Josh.

I think this trip is really about emphasizing the current -- the continued commitment to the rebalance strategy. This is a strategy that the Obama administration articulated years ago. And it's had some concerns, both domestic and regional, about whether or not the administration is still interested in Asia.

We've been a little distracted of late with things like Syria and Ukraine.

So I think this is a chance for the president to really demonstrate, yet again, that he is the Pacific president. He's visiting with allies and friends, so this is a -- in some ways a reassurance trip. He's going to two northeast Asian countries and two Southeast Asian.

Both of the Southeast Asian countries were countries he should have visited last fall when there was a tug-of-war over the budget here in Washington, so he's a little bit overdue on those two trips, that visit to Malaysia in particular because no president has been there since Lyndon Johnson. And so, the Malays -- the Malays are really looking forward to it.

On the other hand, I think there's some -- some work of late that he's had to do between our two allies in Northeast Asia, Japan and South Korea. At the Hague meeting, he had a trilateral meeting between Prime Minister Abe and President Park, to talk about North Korea.

But, of course, the tensions between the Japanese and South Koreans have been a cause for concern for the president.

So I think he's got a lot. He's gonna have a full agenda of bilateral topics in each capital. But I think the larger message is American engagement in Asia and a visible demonstration of it.

LINDSAY: Thank you, Sheila.

Josh, let me toss you the same question.

KURLANTZICK: OK. Well, I think in Southeast Asia in particular he has a kind of challenge that in one country he is going to be touting the rebalance to a pretty welcoming audience, in the Philippines. And of all the countries in the region where the rebalance has taken shape, it's probably been the most successful in terms of progress in military basing agreements, joint exercises. And the president -- you know, President Aquino, has been perceived in the U.S. and in the Philippines as generally pretty successful.

Then he's gonna go to Malaysia where both his domestic audience in Washington, on Capitol Hill and quite a few in Malaysia are not strongly pro-American. The relationship is on a mixed footing, and he's receiving questions about why he's going to Malaysia supposedly to tout the country as an example of a moderate Muslim-majority democracy, when at the same time the opposition leader is being sentenced on a very dubious charge. So he's facing one really challenging environment to sort of restate the rebalance and one in which I think he's gonna be very warmly welcomed. They'll probably be, of the four places, the easiest place, the Philippines, on his whole trip.

LINDSAY: Both Sheila and Josh, let me turn the question around, and ask you what it is that the leaders in the various countries the president's going to visit expect to hear from him? And will he be able to deliver the message they want to hear?

Perhaps you can go first, Sheila.

SMITH: Surely. Let me -- let me deal with the two northeast Asian allies. I think he's stopping -- he's starting first in Tokyo, and this will be a state visit, so he will be the guest of the emperor of Japan. There is a great deal of ceremony, as you might imagine attached with that.

But I think there very clear -- the two points of reference that the Japanese audience will be listening for when he arrives.

The first is reassurance. Again, the Japanese and Chinese have -- late in the East China Sea have had a considerable amount of tension. The U.S. has reassured Japan both that it will respond to the Chinese announcement of ADIZ, air defense identification zone, by not acknowledging it, right?

And this has to do with the U.S. military's capacity to operate in the East China Sea in exactly the same way it has before. That's important not only for the Japanese, but also for the Koreans.

But it does sort of underscore the territorial dispute between Japan and China and the desire to have the United States by Tokyo. That desire is to have the United States articulate that it continues to see the island dispute as part of its overall defense commitment to Japan.

I think -- so you'll hear a lot about U.S.-Japan defense cooperation guidelines, for example, and you may have the president say something specifically to the Senkakus. I'm not sure yet.

The second focal point is going to be TPP -- the Trans-Pacific Partnership. As we speak, the negotiators are still hard at it to try to come to some final accord between Japan and the United States on two sets of issues, both having to do with market access. One is on the Japanese side, market access for U.S. agricultural products; and on the U.S. side, Japanese market access in autos and a fair distribution of access for the Japanese automakers.

The last couple of weeks, outside CFR, we're very close to the special trade representative's office and you possibly have bumped into quite a few Japanese journalists waiting on the corner. This has been a 24/7 negotiation that's gone on and probably will wrap up we hope positively before the president takes off. But I think there's still a lot of bated breath in Tokyo about how that's going to go.

LINDSAY: What odds do you give success on the TPP show?

SMITH: I'm actually quite confident. Again, I think from very close proximity to the negotiations, you can see that both sides are pushing really, really hard to get this wrapped up. I think for both Prime Minister Abe and the president, this would be a conspicuous absence if they didn't. And again, it is the bilateral. Just make sure that it's the bilateral U.S.-Japan piece of the conversation that then opens up I think the possibility for the broader TPP to move ahead.

But that parallel negotiation between Japan and the United States on market access is I think critical for our Congress to accept the Japanese participation in TPP as a positive.

Now, I think it's also important to note that we have a delegation of congressional members in Tokyo at the moment who just met with Mr. Abe this morning, Tokyo time. And they impressed upon him that Republicans -- Republican leadership, they impressed upon him their desire to see TPP go through.

So I think they have gone out of their way to, you know, reinforce this idea that America, Democrat or Republican, that America wants TPP and that I think has probably persuaded Mr. Abe considerably that this is not something that the Obama administration is out on a limb by itself on. So, I see that as a positive indication.

LINDSAY: Thank you, Sheila.

Josh, what about you? What is it that the Filipino government, the Malaysian government is hoping to hear from or see from President Obama during his trip?

KURLANTZICK: I think the government of Philippines, President Aquino, they also want to see a clearer rhetorical statement of the United States' interests in the South China Sea and exactly what the United States would do in the event of conflict in South China Sea.

The rhetorical statement has gone from Secretary of State Clinton several years ago saying the South China Sea is now a United States national interest, to more clear, but still vague expressions of that if there was heightened conflict in South China Sea, the United States would take action. That was what was said by several people at PACOM a few months ago.

But President Aquino and his national security advisers have been constantly pushing for that action to be more clearly defined. And the United States has sort of grudgingly allowed it to become vaguely defined and is seeking to make a clear statement, but one that still is not that clear. So, I think that President Aquino is hoping for President Obama to make a more clear statement and he's going to try to get him to be as specific as possible.

The -- Prime Minister Najib is basically I think hoping that President Obama is going to say all the things that he had planned to say last fall, which was that Malaysia is an example of Muslim majority, moderate democracy; of successful economic development; the strategic relationship has grown enormously, et cetera.

And Prime Minister Najib is going to hope that he still says those things even though most of the world pays minimal attention to Malaysia and the only things they've seen in the last few weeks is probably really inept handling, at least at first, of their vanished airline, which revealed all sorts of broader governance issues, and then perhaps they have heard about the case of Anwar Ibrahim.

So Prime Minister Najib is basically hoping to turn the clock back, and President Obama will act as if none of it has happened.

LINDSAY: Thank you, Josh.

Can I just try a little bit about the president's stop in the Philippines. You've talked about the issue of reassurance. It is the case right now that the Philippines is engaged in a confrontation of sorts with China, with Scarborough Reef. The Filipinos obviously want the support of the United States. Is President Obama going to be able to give President Aquino what he's looking for?

KURLANTZICK: Well, I think that in the Philippines, President Obama is probably going to obtain, just the same way that Prime Minister Abe sees that Republicans and Democrats generally support TPP to some extent. He's going to see in the Philippines that Scarborough Shoal and the broader issue is a very widely support issue in the Philippines. You have people from Aquino's party, really left-wing legislators, who are going out there. The issue of (inaudible) is not a partisan one.

So I think that that is going to compel him, and the fact that he's there on a state visit and that Aquino is viewed very warmly, to make a somewhat clearer statement. But, you know, at the same time, the United States recognizes the reality which is that right now at least the Philippines still has almost no naval capacity. They have engaged in putting Marines on a few of these shoals, including Scarborough, to make a statement, but they didn't do it with a clear plan of what would happen if those areas were blockaded.

And so what Aquino wants is for Obama to make a clearer statement of how the United States might assist or respond if the Philippines is going to respond to that blockade. And I don't think he's going to get that. So I think -- and I think any American president wouldn't say that because he doesn't want to be too clearly committing to (inaudible).

LINDSAY: Fair enough, Josh.

Sheila, you talked about the importance of reassurance in this trip by the president, in making the case that he is still committed to his rebalance. But obviously, the trip is taking place under the shadow of recent events in Ukraine. And to judge by at least some of the media coverage in East Asia, the fate of Crimea has raised concern, at least in some Asian states, about whether or not the United States would make good on its security commitment.

To what extent do you see the Ukraine issue playing in at all during this trip?

SMITH: It's a great question, Jim. I think it's going to play in in exactly the way you just outlined. There is some chatter in the media, largely, right, about well, if the United States is not willing to act in the Crimea, then we can't expect it to act against China.

I don't think that's the mindset of the policymaking community in Japan, at least. What you have there is a different calculus. Mr. Abe, of course, has been conspicuously engaging in personal diplomacy with Mr. Putin over the last, you know, 16 months or so he's been in office. He's visited -- he's met him five times.

The Japan-Russia relationship has been a very difficult post-war relationship, largely because of a territorial issue, but also just because the Japanese and Russians have never really kind of been able to navigate the post-war period well together.

Japanese are interested in, you know, energy from Russia. Russia flirts with Japan and then flirts with China, so not really ready to commit to the Japanese, you know, purchase of its energy, fully.

But I think today, you see Mr. Abe having invested a great deal of his, you know, time and effort in trying to turn around the Japan- Russia relationship, and I think the Ukraine incident puts him in a rather difficult spot.

Early on, the Abe cabinet signed onto the G7 position, right, which was a fairly stark, you know, initial statement of introducing the idea of sanctions if it were to go further, right, Russian behavior were to go further.

I think today, also, the Germans and others were talking to the Japanese about how they might participate fully in sanctions. I think it's going to be a difficult question for the president's visit, how much this is going to overshadow the conversation on other issues in the alliance, but I do think certainly you're going to have a lot of press interest, especially American press interest, on what Mr. Abe is going to do, and what he thinks of his friend, Mr. Putin's behavior.

The foreign minister, Japanese foreign minister was supposed to have gone to Moscow, I think next week, was scheduled to have gone there. But at the -- at the strong suggestion of the United States, has canceled that trip.

The Japanese look at the United States' conversation with China about China's interaction with Mr. Putin's Moscow, and they would like to see the United States put equal amount of pressure on -- on China as they are putting on them.

But I don't think it's a question of equating Crimea with, for example, Senkaku Islands. I don't think that that's quite the lens through which the -- at least the policymaking community in Japan looks at this.

KURLANTZICK: I would -- oh, Sorry.

LINDSAY: Go ahead, Josh.

KURLANTZICK: I just wanted to add one brief note to that, which is that in the Philippines, I do think it's not just the press, but that the -- in policymaking community has much more broadly attuned to -- is much more broadly attuned to the issue of Crimea, because the Philippines has always been much more closely connected to the United States.

They're a much weaker state than Japan. They're very closely watching what happens in Crimea.

LINDSAY: OK. Fair enough. I think at this point, we will open up the conversation to people on the line. I will ask the conference organizer to explain the directions.

OPERATOR: At this time, we'll open the floor for questions. If you would like to ask a question, simply dial the star key followed by the one key on your touch-tone phone now.

Questions will be taken in the order in which they are received. If any time you would like to remove yourself from the questioning queue, simply dial star, two.

Again, to ask a question, dial star, one on your touch-tone phone, now.

Our first question will come from Jeannie Nguyen, (ph) of Voices of Vietnamese Americans. Please go ahead.

And please make sure your phone is not on mute.

Hello? Jeannie Nguyen? (ph) We'll go on to the next question from Mudsi, (ph) Tricia Black, (ph) please go ahead.

QUESTION: Hello?

OPERATOR: Yes ma'am. Go ahead.

QUESTION: Yes, OK. This is Priscilla Black from Mitsui. (ph) So, I had a question for Sheila. You express optimism for a TPP and were hoping that the U.S. and Japan made some kind of breakthrough on the bilateral negotiations during Obama's trip. What would that look like in terms of what the breakthrough would entail?

Because it seems that at least in the trade community, the administration has been downplaying expectations of what to expect from the trip.

SMITH: OK. I thought I'd -- yeah, on my initial (inaudible), it's really the market access piece, right? And so the focal point as I understand it is pork and beef agricultural tariffs in the Japanese side. I saw in the Japanese press this morning, again, they had reduced it from the idea of 38 percent to nine percent.

I think the conversation between Australia and Japan that took place, the agreement that took place a week or so ago, helped a little bit on the ag stuff at least.

On the American side, again, I haven't watched the blow by blow day by day account of this, but my understanding is that it is the autos piece, and the reduction of tariffs on autos, in particular on trucks. The period that -- the focal point, I think, is just how quickly the United States is going to be willing to reduce tariffs, and again, this market access focus is the real point between now and the time the president arrives on Wednesday night.

What that does, I think your larger question may be what does it do for TPP, broadly, and I think the -- that's less of a technical issue than it is just largely -- if U.S. -- if the U.S. and Japan cannot find accommodation at this point, then the energy within the TPP, there's all kinds of other problems we may be encountering on TPP down the road, but if you can't get the Japanese and the United States to get past the market access problem, then most people are feeling quite pessimistic about how quickly we might get back to the TPP table in any kind of serious way.

We have midterm elections, as you know, in the fall, and so the energy will dissipate.

QUESTION: Do you think there will be some kind of political breakthrough in terms of their -- their commitment to work through the market access issues?

SMITH: I am -- I may be the only one left in Washington who's slightly positive, but I think they wouldn't be working so hard at it at the moment if they didn't think they were within reach.

QUESTION: OK, thanks.

SMITH: You're welcome.

OPERATOR: Thank you for your question. Our next question will come from Contessa Bourbon of Merry Times. (ph) Please go ahead.

QUESTION: Hi. I'd like to ask how can the U.S. cooperate with Japan and the Philippines to counter maritime power of China and defend its territory?

What (inaudible) assets or equipment should be given?

SMITH: Thank you. I'm going to jump in. I'm not sure if you were gonna ask me or Josh, but I can do it very quick. Prime Minister Abe has already announced that he -- his coast guard will be forwarding capacity to the Philippines. I think it's on the order of somewhere between six to 10 ships over the next several years.

I think there's also going to be coastal defense training between -- bilateral training between the Japanese and the Philippines.

I think the humanitarian disaster relief part of the collaboration is also a new element. As you know, after Typhoon Haiyan, the Japanese self defense forces went to help the Philippines, and I think there's some plans -- there's some plans already agreed upon for disaster relief assistance, which will be both civilian and military.

QUESTION: Right.

SMITH: So, I think the agenda on those two issues is where the -- the two countries have already begun the conversation about bilateral assistance.

QUESTION: It's about the U.S. operations in Japan and the Philippines. Not only Japan and the Philippines that I'm asking. It's about U.S. cooperation with Japan and the Philippines.

KURLANTZICK: Well, the U.S....

QUESTION: Can I -- we can ask Josh, but to end, Sheila.

KURLANTZICK: The U.S. has been responding to the Philippines' request for her greater military assistance in terms of ships. Also, in terms of the humanitarian disasters, the general long-term (inaudible) also is that ASEAN will play a larger role in developing a humanitarian disaster assistant capability. And that's been a high -- a major priority of the U.S. and its relationship with ASEAN, going back to the president's first term.

I think that with the Philippines, you have also an issue of, despite this assistance from Japan and the United States, there's still going to be some catching up to do in terms of the capabilities. The Philippines sort of woke up a few years ago and realized that the capabilities of -- and training of the navy was so low that it's going to take some time to catch up.

And also, there's the hope that the armed forces in the Philippines are going to potentially shift over the long term more men out of the South with the -- with the peace agreement if it really takes hold. And that will free up people to gain skills and to be deployed in other parts of the country.

LINDSAY (?): Sheila, would you want to add anything else to your...

SMITH: No, no. I think it's -- I mean, I think both countries -- both Japan and the United States independently have programs of capacity development with the Philippines. And I think the Japanese are going to continue that bilateral conversation. But I think Josh is right, that this is long term. The capacity of ASEAN overall has really been a focal point for both Washington and -- and Tokyo. So, I expect to see both trajectories expand.

OPERATOR: Thank you for your question. Our next question will come from Howard LaFranchi of the Christian Science Monitor. Please go ahead.

QUESTION: Yeah, thank you.

My question -- I have kind of a -- well, it's really a question about China. So, if either or both of you could answer it, it'd be helpful. As Jim noted, of course, the president's not going to China, but certainly, China will be watching very closely. And I'm -- I'm wondering what -- what you would think the Chinese government will be looking for in terms of both -- both what the president says and any kind of commitments he makes in terms of -- of the -- you know, the rebalancing to Asia.

And then secondly, if I could ask I guess Sheila specifically, because you were saying that you felt that despite what might be in the media, that in the policy-making community -- if I understood right -- that there wasn't a lot of equating of Crimea with the Senkakus. In other words, concerns that -- that the U.S. might also, as Jim suggested, again, you know, not really back up its -- you know, its policy or its, you know, security arrangements if it came -- if push came to shove in the South China Sea.


And -- but I -- I was -- I was just wondering -- I -- I just want to make sure that I had that clear. Because I was talking to a Japanese diplomat the other day, you know, who specifically, you know, was sort of wondering aloud sort of about that -- that whole question. And, you know, where is this whole Ukraine thing going to go, and what does that say about, you know, just how dedicated the Obama administration is to its -- to its allies.

So, if you could, you know, maybe clear things up on that.

SMITH: Sure.

Which way -- which direction would you -- who -- Josh, do you want to talk about China?

KURLANTZICK: Well, I mean, I'm -- I -- I don't -- I don't agree that in terms of the Crimea -- like I said before, the Crimea aspect, that it's not followed in terms of how -- viewing how the U.S. might react in the South China Sea. I think, like I said, that, although there's not a direct parallel, that opinion leaders in the Philippines very closely watch that. And because they are -- feel themselves much, much more vulnerable than Japan in every aspect of the -- of their relationship with China, that they watch every signal from the United States like a hawk much more intensely. So, I think that they do -- there -- and there will be a lot of discussion not only in the media, but among opinion leaders in the Philippines about Crimea.

So -- and the reverse is that China will respond to any statement that the president makes, or that President Aquino gets President Obama to make about any specifics about the South China Sea. Every specific item will be rebutted, and every word noted. So, I think that they're going to try to make the -- President Obama's going to try to make the broader statement possible so that whatever response comes from China doesn't nail anyone down to anything.

But remember, the Philippines is also at the same time taking their case to international arbitration which -- as -- over the South China Sea, which China furiously rejects. So, President Aquino's going to probably try to hope that President Obama makes some statement supporting their right to take the case to international arbitration, even though the United States has not signed the U.N. law (ph) on the sea. (ph)

So, every statement will be rebutted by China, and that's to be expected.

SMITH: Yeah.

LINDSAY: Sheila?

SMITH: Yeah, just to pick up on the Japan side on the China -- you know, your question -- for your first question about China -- I think Secretary Hagel was just in the region a week or so ago. I think there was lots there for Beijing, obviously, to respond to. I think on the flip side, at least for Japan, they felt that Secretary Hagel's trip was very successful. And the fact that Secretary Hagel was very explicit about the U.S. defense commitment to Japan on Chinese soil I think was very reassuring to them.

I expect -- but I may not be correct on this -- I expect that the president will talk about the agenda for the U.S. and Japan without direct reference to what it means for China. There will be, of course, in Beijing complete sensitivity to anything that has to do with East China Sea issues, any explicit mention of the Senkaku Islands, and will be, of course -- will get an immediate response from Beijing.

The other topic that you could see China being extraordinarily sensitive about is the U.S.-Japan Defense Cooperation Guidelines, and any reference to Japanese constitutional reinterpretation on collective self-defense.

So, Senkakus and the constitution would be -- would be focal points for me on the defense side of things. But I suspect the president -- I mean, Secretary Hagel's trip has in large part taken care of some of those issues in advance of the president's trip. So, you may not see very overt statements that would, you know, occasion a -- a quick response by china.

I -- but China will be listening with large ears to the entire visit, I think. And I think Josh is right on that.

On the Ukraine piece, let me just make it very clear what I was maybe saying a little too cryptically. Any -- any ally who watches the United States engaged in a crisis or use of force question, decision-making about use of force elsewhere, is going to be very sensitive to the question of U.S. resolve, right?

I think that's true. It's true in Syria. I think it's true today in Ukraine. I think the -- it's -- the conversation in Japan is rather complex, right? I think sometimes in the media it gets painted in very straightforward or simple terms, that, yeah, Crimea equals Senkakus, and Japan is watching it that way.

I think the equation is more complex, largely because China's -- many people in Tokyo, foreign policy analysts as well as senior policymakers themselves, are watching our response absolutely. But they are also watching China, and they're watching the China-Russia dance, Putin's anticipated visit to China next month, for example. They're watching the way in which China may be interpreting the behavior and the international community's response. They're watching to see whether China may that Putin's opportunism equals an opportunity for them.

So, clearly the Japanese policymaking community is watching us, but they're also watching Beijing. And I think it's true of the moment that, especially for Japan, that the lens through which lots of this is getting filtered is not just the alliance lens. It's also the reading-of-China lens. And so, I think it's a little bit more complicated than a Senkaku-equals-Crimea kind of equation.

But I think the basic point, and I think it's across the region as Josh suggested, is what is -- is the United States still willing to engage with the international community on these issues? Is the United States still willing to lead? And how strong of a stance is the United States willing to take?

And I, too, have spoken with lots of Japanese diplomats who say, "Obama should be stronger; Obama should confront Russia." But the complexities of how you actually do that once you get into a conversation about sanctions or, you know, what is Germany, how is the NATO alliance responding, or what do we do about our Eastern European allies. Ukraine is not an ally of the United States.

And so, you know, the complexity, once you get down to a tier or two into what do we do next or who we speak to next, then you get into a much more shades-of-gray kind of conversation.

QUESTION: Thanks.

SMITH: Sure.

OPERATOR: Thank you for your question.

Our next question will come from Van Dong (ph) of China Daily. Please go ahead.

QUESTION: Hello. I'm (inaudible) from China Daily. And my question is the (inaudible) setting (inaudible) in today's press conference. And President Obama's Asia tour is not to (inaudible) China. But according to the agenda, (inaudible) territorial disputes with leaders from Malaysia and the Philippines, as well as Japan, and especially the South China Sea issue.

So, what is your comment on that? So, what is the reason do you think that Obama doesn't include China in this Asia tour?

Thank you.

SMITH: I could take a quick stab at that. I think the United States has interests in Asia that do not necessarily always include China. I think our China -- our Asia policy is not entirely derivative of our relationship with China. And so I think that's -- that's a quick answer to your question. But I do think that territorial disputes around the region will be part of the agenda in large part because friends and allies in the region want to talk about them, so they're not just an American agenda item. They're also a regional agenda item. But I'll turn it over to Josh for the South China Sea.

KURLANTZICK: Well, that's the thing that's important to remember, though, this trip is -- has some themes, but it's also somewhat patched together because the president was supposed to visit Southeast Asia last fall and he didn't. So he's paying back something that was sort of due.

So it's not necessarily true that an administration always tries to paint everything as if they had thought of it months or years in advance, that everything was put together in one way. So, there's partly just paying back dues.

But yeah, I mean, I agree that it's not a requirement that he has to visit China every time he crosses the Pacific.

QUESTION: But do you think this Asia tour is the kind of (inaudible) China? Because, well, we know that there is a new (inaudible) agreement (inaudible) going to be signed between United States and the Philippines. And, you know, do you think it is a kind of way to (inaudible) China?

KURLANTZICK: Well, I think with the Philippines specifically, most of the drivers for that agreement and pretty much almost everything else the United States is doing with the Philippines, the drivers -- the driver is the Philippines.

Not that the United States is not interested in the policy, but the policy has been driven by the Philippines. And in fact, the Philippines' national security advisers, several of them going back even before Aquino, but certainly during the Aquino presidency, have been coming to the United States over and over and over and over, meeting with top people in Washington, pushing for more, pushing for more, pushing for more. And that is driven by the Philippines' concerns about the South China Sea, and not really about the United States.

So, although it was not an ideal situation, I think that if you asked President Obama if the situation in the South China Sea went back to the way it was 15 years ago, they would probably be relatively content with that. The driver has been what's happened in the South China Sea, and the driver's been the Philippines. So, I don't think it's the United States being (inaudible) the Philippines to contain China.

SMITH: Could I -- just a quick note, too, about the targeting China language that you're using. I think, you know, I understand the perception in Beijing is very sensitive to U.S. policy in the region. I do think in Northeast Asia, we didn't -- we haven't quite talked about Korea too much. And our colleague, Scott Snyder (ph), wasn't able to join us today. But it might be worth noting here that at least in the two Northeast Asian allies, there will be a large portion of the conversation that's really about North Korea. When the president visits Seoul, he will be talking about TPP with the South Koreans. The -- South Korea and the United States have just concluded the latest round of basing cost-sharing agreement, so there's things to be talked about there.

The president and the -- two presidents, in fact, will be visiting the Combined Forces Command, which as you know, there's a dialogue between Japan -- I'm sorry -- between the United States and South Korea on what's called "OPCON transfer" and that's an ongoing conversation.

But North Korea's behavior of late has focused the attention of both Tokyo and Seoul and the United States on what to do in terms of potential provocations from the North, as well as a potential missile or nuclear test. So, North Korea and North Korea's behavior will be a large part of at least the Northeast Asian conversations as well.

QUESTION: OK. Thank you.

SMITH: You're welcome.

OPERATOR: Thank you for your question.

Our next question will come from Sheldon Kasowitz with Indus Capital. Please go ahead.

QUESTION: Hi. Thank you. Excuse me.

I guess for Sheila, getting back to TPP, can you comment a bit about the domestic U.S. political environment for TPP? Because I think there was for a while some presumption that prior to the mid- terms, neither political party is that interested in pushing forward on TPP. So, I, for one, am a bit surprised positively that there's so much momentum it seems right now in Tokyo.

SMITH: Yeah. I think -- well, momentum is as momentum does. I mean, some people will see momentum and some people won't. And so I -- I tend to be a little bit more optimistic on this than others at the moment. But here's the challenge on the U.S. politics side. You know, this is not my -- I am not an expert on the politics of TPP, especially on the Hill -- but I do think that the visit that I referenced, right, today, this morning, which is, you know, this morning, Tokyo time, of bipartisan, but largely Republican leadership represented in Tokyo, conveying to the prime minister that -- that although Congress is not going to give our president, right, trade promotion authority, that they would absolutely committed to TPP as a -- as a project between the United States and Japan.

SMITH: I think that's a big political signal there, that on Capitol Hill there is actually bipartisan support for TPP -- maybe not for TPA, but for TPP.

And I think what's -- what I think the negotiators have been hoping for, both on the American side as well as the Japanese side, is not to lose the momentum on the conversation, in other words, not to stop and wait 'til the mid-terms and then try and pick up the ball afterwards, but, in fact, the two executive branches can move forward with setting the groundwork necessary, the basic political compromises necessary, to be able to present after the mid-term election to the Hill some significant progress.

And, again, these are the parallel U.S.-Japan talks that I'm referring to specifically here. And I think that's gonna -- I think that's gonna happen.

Abe, on his side, has some pretty complex politics of his own. And we tend to look at, you know, ag -- agriculture in Japan as being all that rice. So it's not. It's about beef and pork and other kinds of things as well, but particularly, right now, it's about beef and pork.

And those constituencies have a particular political clout. And they are also political constituencies that mean a lot to the LBT (ph).

So, you know, each side I think has their own constituencies and interest groups to deal with and to protect, to a certain extent. But I think the overall message that I'm beginning to hear coming from Capitol Hill is more positive than I initially thought.

QUESTION: So, not to get too obsessed with the political calendar, but it sounds like -- and I agree, or I'm not surprised there's bipartisan support for TPP...

SMITH: Yeah.

QUESTION: ... in -- you know, in general. But you don't think April was too early to conclude these kinds of agreements with Japan, the centerpiece party of TPP besides the U.S.? You don't think it's too early, and we can still wait until post-November to kind of push it forward in Washington?

SMITH: I guess I wouldn't go quite that far. But I think the two issues of market access that are currently kind of the last piece of the puzzle for the U.S. and Japan, right, the parallel talks on market access, are autos on our side and very specifically the reduction of tariffs, right, on trucks, right? And the second piece is the pork and beef over on the Japanese side.

And I think the constituency interests there are that, yeah, we -- that, no, April is not too early, that the question is, these are constituents that tend to be on the Democratic side of the equation, but that doesn't mean they're doing to be easy to manage.

But I don't think it's necessarily too early to get the conversation at least begun with Japan.

QUESTION: OK. Thank you very much. That was helpful.

SMITH: You're welcome. OPERATOR: Thank you.

As a quick reminder, if you have a question, dial star-one.

Our next question will come from John Algar (ph) of EuroWeek (ph).

(inaudible)

QUESTION: Yes. Hello, good afternoon.

To -- when the original trip was canceled back in (inaudible), I picked up on a number of commentators which had argued that Beijing almost used a (inaudible) on the acting summit to push off the EP (ph), kind of suggesting that LCEP (ph) and TPP in broad terms are almost geopolitical rivals.

Now, I appreciate that China's relationship with the TPP may have changed since then, but I was just wondering how you think the administration is thinking about RCEP (ph) in the context of its relationship with TPP. And if at all that will influence sort of the negotiating dynamics during the trip?

QUESTION: Thank you.

KURLANTZICK: I think that (inaudible) is not really going to be focusing on that. I mean, both because of the (inaudible) relationship with TPP has potentially changed. And also potentially because they need to have some kind of backup plan if TPP does not go through. And I don't think it was necessarily portrayed as geopolitical rival (inaudible) TPP, but it sort of came out that way.

I also think that most of the countries in the region would prefer -- that are signed up for TPP -- would prefer to go with TPP, but they are just looking, as always (inaudible) in Southeast Asia, to balance and hedge.

SMITH: I think just to add to what Josh said here, I think the TPP and the RCEP are not viewed as strategic competitors. The participants in the RCEP, remember, are not the same kind of countries that would be participating in TPP. And the trade agreements themselves are actually constitutionally quite different.

The Peterson Institute has done a terrific study in comparing the two and talking about them as being complementary. And I think that's what I read in terms of the kind of down in the -- in the kind of details, technical details about complementarities between the agreements in Asia.

And I think I would just -- the geostrategic challenge I think for China is if TPP is successful, then China is going to want to hurry up and get in, I think. I don't think for the Japanese that RCEP equals TPP in the slightest. I think the Japanese read TPP -- and potentially down the lines, the Koreans may as well -- but I think that the Japanese read the TPP as giving them a geostrategic advantage over China. That -- that's certainly true. But I don't think from Washington's perspective, we view it through that lens.

QUESTION: Thank you.

SMITH: You're welcome.

OPERATOR: Thank you for your question.

Our next question comes from Rocky Wada (ph) of (inaudible).

Go ahead.

QUESTION: Hello?

SMITH: Hello?

QUESTION: Can you hear me?

SMITH: Yes, we can.

QUESTION: Good. Mademoiselle, I'm with Japan's (inaudible) newspaper.

My question is about President Obama's message to China. You said that his main purpose will be to reassure his allies in the region. But how about China? What kind of message do you think he wants to send to China?

SMITH: Well, again, I'm probably just repeating what I said earlier. I don't think the premise of this trip is messaging to China. I think it's much more dedicated to the bilaterals. The agendas for each of the bilaterals are fairly similar, but they're each, you know, very rooted in the relationships -- you know, the Japan relationship, the Korea relationship, the burgeoning hopefully Malaysia relationship, right, and the Philippine relationship.

So I -- but I, you know, his presence in the region and the tour itself sends a very significant message to China. I'm not sure that the president needs to use these visits to speak to Beijing. On the military security side, of course, Secretary Hagel's trip, as I said earlier, I think has -- has accomplished really what -- what the Obama administration wants to accomplish. And I suspect that he will be very focused instead on -- on what Tokyo needs to -- needs to talk about and what Seoul needs to talk about, et cetera, around the region.

But, you know, I -- I have no illusions that Beijing will be watching this trip very, very carefully. And there'll probably be a significant debate in China over how to interpret what this means for Chinese foreign policy and Chinese interests in the region as well.

QUESTION: I see. And one more question, if I may.

What will be the success or failure for this trip? When do you call this trip a success, and when do you call this trip a failure, depending on its achievements or lack of achievements?

SMITH: I guess my expectations are not -- I mean, again, I guess success and failure is a good way -- is a good framework. I think it depends on what kind of expectations you have.

On the Japan piece of it, for example, I think if we didn't get to an accommodation on market access, and I realize this may be a little heretical in Washington at the moment, I think it would be a problem. It would signal a problem for both Tokyo and for us.

I think if you -- when you move over to South Korea, of course there is a -- there is a serious conversation to be had there about our -- the U.S.-ROK approach to North Korea.

I don't anticipate that that's going to be in the slightest bit a problem. I think that's going to be a fairly smooth conversation. In fact, that they're actually meeting in the Combined Forces Command is indicative of how close in step Washington and Seoul are at the moment in trying to prevent provocations from the North.

There's not a high TPP threshold for the conversation in South Korea, of course, so it's different for Japan.

And I guess I should let -- I should let Josh talk about the other bilaterals.

But I don't think that there's going to be -- I think what -- where I would be disappointed in, I'm not sure I would use the word "failure," is something that Jim pointed out earlier, and that is that the Ukraine dominates, right, dominates the conversation, so that Asia doesn't get to be the focal point in the U.S. media and beyond.

I think that would be disappointed to me.

I think the other piece of the puzzle, and, again, it's not success-failure so much, but I think would be striking, and we should -- but we shouldn't discount it, is that the North Koreans use this opportunity to perhaps try to get -- try to get our attention again, again, not necessarily success or failure, but I think we should be prepared that that could be a possibility.

Beyond that, I -- so I think the big one for me, and, again, it's coming from a very Japan-centric perspective here, the big one for me would be the lack of an accommodation on TPP.

KURLANTZICK: Well, I think that one of the things that's noticeable, anytime a trip combines countries in northeast Asia, is the different levels of expectation and what would be considered a success or a failure.

So that in the place like Malaysia, simply having the president show up is, for the Malaysian government, a success, whereas that wouldn't be a success in Japan.

So you're talking about very, very different levels of relationship and expectations. I think that in the Philippines, like I said before, I pretty much (inaudible), a success would be getting the president to specifically go on a record more clearly about what the United States' obligations are in the South China Sea, as they -- as they relate to the United States treaty with the Philippines.

In Malaysia, Prime Minister Nagev (ph) has achieved quite a lot in terms of building a relationship with the U.S.

And so, to him, I think it's already a success that President Obama is gonna come and basically mostly praise Prime Minister Nagev's (ph) achievements in Malaysia. So it's almost a built-in success before he arrives.

There's not gonna be any clear deliverables in Malaysia. They haven't (inaudible) there on the TPP. But they're not gonna change their position one way or another based on this one visit.

So the level of expectation of what will be a success in both these countries is much, much lower than it is in Japan or South Korea.

LINDSAY: OK, we have time for one final question, Mr. Moderator.

OPERATOR: Thank you.

The last question will come from Jane Nyuen (ph) of Voice of Vietnamese Americans.

Please go ahead.

And, Jeanie, please make sure your phone is not on mute.

We're not getting a response.

I'll turn the conference back over to you, Mr. Jim Lindsay.

LINDSAY: Well, we can -- if there's anyone else in your queue we can take that question.

OPERATOR: That was the final question, sir.

LINDSAY: OK. Fair enough.

Let me just ask Sheila and Josh, you have one last shot to make any summary comments or to address any issues you wish was addressed a bit more during the call.

And this time, I'll start with Josh.

KURLANTZICK: Well, I think that the one -- one thing that wasn't discussed, is just the president is going to focus on a little bit in the Philippines and Malaysia, and that he was planning to focus on before in Malaysia, is entrepreneurship and economic reform.

Both of these countries have made substantial gains, but a lot of the economy is still dominated by either large oligarchs or state companies.

And one visit isn't gonna change anything, but he is gonna use the imagery of the visit to push for a great economic reform, particularly in Malaysia. And I think that that's needed. And people in the Malaysian government who really look to the future know that too.

LINDSAY: Sheila?

SMITH: Yeah, I think the one thing that I think will be a large part of the president's trip in each of these capitals is really an emphasis to not just the high politics, which we've talked about here extensively, but also on the citizen -- the relationships between American and citizens of Asia, that the citizen-to-citizen ties that bind.

I think in Japan, for example, he's going to talking about educational initiatives to up the number of students studying abroad. I think he's going to speak to people, young leaders, I think in Malaysia and KO (ph), he'll be reaching out to a variety of communities, entrepreneurs, as Josh said, and others.

So it's not just going to be about the high message, the high politics of strategy and economic, you know, trade agreements, but I think there's gonna be an opportunity, as there is in all presidential visits, right, to reach out to the people of the countries that he will be in.

And I think the anxiety in the region -- we had several Chinese journalists speak here or ask us questions -- the anxiety in the region about, you know, the future of the United States and the sustainability of the United States' engagement with the region, is real. It's not something that's just made up in terms of, you know, trying to demonize China or worry about -- too much about China.

But it is a moment, I think, of significant transition in the region. And so, the president's presence itself I think will speak a lot to the popular anxieties in the region. And I expect the president knows that and will focus on that.

LINDSAY: Thank you, Sheila.

Thank you, Josh.

And my thanks to everyone who's on the phone call today, and especially to those of you who asked a question.

You can all read more of Sheila and Josh's work and the work of CFR's other Asia study fellows at Asia Unbound, the CFR blog, which you can find at CFR.org.

Again, thank you for everybody for listening. And have a great day.

SMITH: Thank you, bye.

OPERATOR: Thank you, ladies and gentlemen. This concludes today's call. You may now disconnect your lines.

And have a wonderful afternoon.

SMITH: Thank you so much. Bye.

LINDSAY: Thank you.

KURLANTZICK: Thank you.

END

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