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President Obama and Japan-South Korean Relations

Author: Sheila A. Smith, Senior Fellow for Japan Studies
March 25, 2014
ASAN Forum


President Obama's trip to Asia in April will have a full agenda, and should result in some important accomplishments. He will have his work cut out for him, however. The region's challenges are far deeper and the solutions to problems far more complex than most Americans realize. One trip alone cannot address all the issues that demand the president's attention, but this trip will strengthen some very important relationships—and stimulate some constructive attention to a diplomatic logjam between Tokyo and Seoul.

The April trip includes four destinations, each with its own agenda for the US president. Two of his stops are to countries that were expecting him last fall, when he was due to participate in the East Asia Summit. A US president had not visited Malaysia for nearly fifty years; so it was particularly wrenching when politics in Washington took priority. In Kuala Lumpur, Prime Minister Najib Razak seeks to transform his nation, and instill in its economy a new embrace of competitiveness and global reach. He faces domestic pressures on his effort to conclude the TPP, and the president's visit will help focus attention on the benefits to be had from his transformative agenda. It will also give the two leaders a chance to discuss the growing pressures Malaysia is facing from Beijing.

In Manila, President Benigno Aquino will be particularly keen to have Obama's support as his government continues to confront Chinese pressure over their maritime and territorial disputes. Manila's decision to revamp its Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) with the United States comes from its own difficulties with Beijing, and undoubtedly Aquino will be looking to Obama for support in broadening his diplomatic effort to manage China's economic pressures on the Philippine economy. Expectations are high for what a visit from Obama can bring to both of these Southeast Asian economies.

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