from Greenberg Center for Geoeconomic Studies

Before Exiting Asia, Obama’s Subdued Summit

The Obama administration’s failure to reach a trade pact with South Korea and craft a strategic agenda for its alliance with Japan bodes ill for bolstering its influence in Asia, writes CFR’s Sheila Smith.

November 15, 2010, 9:28 am (EST)

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The two-day Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit in Yokohama, Japan, produced a new "vision" for accelerating the pace of trade liberalization in Asia Pacific. Yet the U.S. role in this collective effort seemed diminished coming on the heels of President Barack Obama’s announcement that he had failed to finalize the long-awaited U.S.-South Korean trade deal (KORUS). If the United States cannot deliver on its bilateral free trade agreement with South Korea, it is likely that others in the region will worry about the prospects for the proposed U.S. vehicle for regional trade liberalization, the Transpacific Partnership. The Chinese proposal of an ASEAN-Plus-Three arrangement or the Japanese idea for an ASEAN-Plus-Six effort at implementing a more open trade regime may seem like better bets because of those countries’ greater apparent eagerness to strike free trade deals in the region.

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Summit meetings between Japan’s Prime Minister Naoto Kan and two of Japan’s neighbors drew more attention within the region. Japan’s recent scuffles over territorial issues with China and Russia have created a new wave of turbulence in the diplomacy of Northeast Asia. All eyes were on the discussions between Kan and Chinese President Hu Jintao, which were not finalized until hours before the twenty-two-minute meeting. The fact that the meeting was held at all produced a sense of relief that the two countries could return to some semblance of their prior effort to build a "mutually beneficial strategic relationship."

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In talks with Russia’s President Dmitry Medvedev, Kan lamented the lack of a peace treaty between the two states. Kan again reiterated Japan’s sovereignty over the Northern Territories, which Russian claims as part of its Kuril Islands, and protested strongly the recent visit by Medvedev to one of those islands.

But it is the health of the U.S.-Japan relationship that is key to Japan’s ability to work through these difficult times with its neighbors.  While the recent tenor of the Washington-Tokyo relationship seems much improved from the strains of last year, only a brief meeting on the sidelines of APEC was scheduled. Obama and Kan only had time to reiterate their past commitments to the bilateral alliance. They made brief statements to the press, in which Obama noted his concerns about China’s rise and hinted that the two governments would develop an agenda over the coming months to strengthen U.S.-Japan cooperation.

Expectations that this second presidential trip to Japan could produce a joint statement of strategic intent for the United States and Japan were lowered in recent months as the dispute over the relocation of the Futenma Marine Air Station produced serious strains on the relationship. What many hoped would be a celebration of the fiftieth anniversary of the bilateral treaty between Japan and the United States turned into a more personal walk down memory lane for the president. He visited the famous Daibutsu statue in Kamakura, a place his mother took him when he was six. Despite these optics, however, the controversy over the U.S. airbase continues to cripple the two countries’ ability to contend with a rapidly changing strategic environment in Asia.

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With no breakthroughs on either the bilateral KORUS trade agreement or on the development of a strategic agenda for the U.S.-Japan alliance, the administration is now in danger of being seen as unable to sustain some of its key commitments in Asia. Obama highly values these relationships, and has argued that Asia is a top priority for U.S. diplomacy. Moreover, his administration has taken great advantage of regional events to demonstrate that commitment. Both Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Secretary of Defense Robert Gates worked hard to shape the Asian security agenda this year.

But timing is everything. The Asia Pacific region faces an increasingly worrisome China and desperately depends on an open and competitive regional economy. On this trip, Washington underplayed its hand in both Seoul and Tokyo, and lost both momentum and credibility. There will be other opportunities for high-profile diplomatic successes--next year’s APEC meeting in Honolulu and a U.S.-Japan summit tentatively set for the spring. Yet the Obama administration does not have the luxury of time in Asia. If it is to claim success for its regional foreign policy agenda, it must put the full range of its political muscle and intellectual talent behind the effort to transform these critical partnerships.

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