President Barack Obama arrived in Tokyo Wednesday for a weeklong visit to Asia to reassure jittery allies that the region remains his top priority. The trip was rescheduled from October, when the president canceled plans to attend two key regional summits because of a U.S. government shutdown. The administration’s ability to focus on its much-heralded pivot to Asia has been challenged by an array of competing domestic and international priorities. The political crisis in Ukraine, the long-standing crisis in Syria and preparations for the withdrawal of combat troops from Afghanistan have been serious distractions.
Yet discord in Asia itself between two key U.S. allies, Japan and South Korea, has created its own difficulties, and made this trip even more important. As a result, the White House added the two countries to the list of nations the president will be visiting (Malaysia and the Philippines were already on his October itinerary). South Korea and Japan are locked in the so-called history wars — simmering tensions over Japan’s responsibility and accountability for its period of colonial rule in Korea. The U.S. administration has made clear that it will not act as mediator between the two sides. Nevertheless, Obama has acted assertively to try to prevent a further erosion of relations between them. Applying pressure on both countries’ leaders, he played an instrumental role in bringing together South Korean President Park Geun-hye and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe for a face-to-face meeting in late March on the sidelines of the nuclear-security summit in The Hague.
That meeting, which focused on North Korea and other regional security issues, showed limited results. No agreements were forged, and no memorandum of understanding was signed. Yet it represented a successful first step in broaching a dialogue. During his current trip to Asia, Obama will meet privately with both Park and Abe. The U.S. should hold fast in its unwillingness to tolerate a situation in which relations between Japan and South Korea remain strained.
Obama’s tact in not trying to mediate the two countries’ dispute is wise. Such an attempt would bound to disappoint and inflame one side or the other. Instead, the U.S. should continue to keep the two leaders focused on the regional interests that bind them. As Obama underscored in March after their trilateral meeting, North Korea’s nuclear threat is one of those common interests.
“Close coordination between our three countries has succeeded in changing the game with North Korea, and our trilateral cooperation has sent a strong signal to Pyongyang that its provocations and threats will be met with a unified response,” Obama said in a statement after the meeting in response to a long-range ballistic missiles test by North Korea. “The U.S. commitment to the security of both Japan and the Republic of Korea is unwavering, and ... a nuclear North Korea is unacceptable.”
Obama’s current itinerary does not include any major summits. He will not likely see much progress on negotiations for the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), a free-trade pact with 12 Asia-Pacific countries that is key to the economic side of the president’s rebalance. What, then, is the purpose of this trip?
A major rationale for the trip seems to be simply to reassure the leaders of the four nations that the U.S. will remain deeply engaged in the Asia-Pacific region. “The trip offers a chance for the United States to affirm our commitment to a rules-based order in the region,” Obama’s national-security adviser, Susan Rice, said on Monday during a briefing at the White House.
Obama will have to reiterate the message forcefully. Regional leaders are skeptical about Washington’s resolve in the face of its inaction in Syria and Ukraine. China’s increased assertiveness in territorial disputes in the East and South China seas is a growing concern for leaders of the four nations. Beijing’s establishment in November of an air-defense identification zone, which overlaps with Japan’s, South Korea’s and Taiwan’s airspace, has heightened these tensions. Should China invade one of the Senkaku islands that Beijing claims for its own, Japanese leaders will want to hear whether the U.S. will honor its commitments under the 1960 U.S.-Japan Mutual Security Treaty and come to Japan’s assistance.
In South Korea, Obama should press Park to accept Japan’s apologies and expressions of remorse for its past aggressions and colonization of the Korean peninsula. While Abe signaled intentions to reverse those apologies during his election campaign last year, he has so far failed to do so, perhaps fearing a popular backlash. A growing number of Japanese civil society groups oppose his right-wing nationalist rhetoric. As South Korea’s leading daily JoongAng Ilbo noted in an editorial in November, 16 Japanese intellectuals, including scholars and former high-ranking government officials, created an association to defend the statements of remorse made by Prime Minister Tomiichi Murayama in 1995.
In Japan, Obama should also urge Prime Minister Abe to stop provocative visits to the controversial Yasukuni Shrine, where the spirits of 14 class-A war criminals are enshrined. The site also houses a World War II museum that has been widely criticized for extolling Japanese militarism.
Obama should also highlight the Philippines’ and South Korea’s successes in transitioning to democracy, and their fundamental affinity with Japan as democracies. Manila and Seoul have made remarkable gains after authoritarian governments were toppled by people power in the late 1980s. Too often South Korea’s economic growth has been touted to the neglect of its even greater achievement in transforming itself from decades of authoritarian rule to a vibrant democracy. The Philippines’ 1986 yellow revolution, which transformed the country from authoritarian rule to democracy, inspired other nonviolent “color” revolutions around the globe.
Japan’s post–World War II peace constitution continues to enjoy greater support. Last week a new poll from Asahi, one of the country’s largest newspapers, found that 64 percent of Japanese people want to preserve the no-war clause in Article 9 of the Japanese constitution. An effort to conserve Article 9, spearheaded by a 37-year-old housewife from Kanagawa prefecture, outside Tokyo, was nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize earlier this year.
In Malaysia, Obama will meet with civil rights leaders and hold a town-hall event at Malaya University with young leaders from 10 Southeast Asian nations. At these events he should encourage democratic practices, a concern under current Prime Minister Najib Razak, by underscoring the successes of democracy in the other three countries on his itinerary.
Obama’s four-nation trip sends an important message about the U.S.’s commitment to Asia. Only through cooperation and mutual respect will these countries meet the regional challenges they face from China and North Korea.