America: A Pacific Power?

By Nile Bowie | Russia Today: As Washington pursues its re-balancing strategy, Obama’s historic
four-nation tour of the Asia-Pacific has subtly altered the region’s
security dynamics.

“The United States is a Pacific power, and we are here to
declared President Obama during his speech to the
Australian parliament in 2011, following his announcement to
deploy 2,500 marines to northern Australia to help protect
American interests across Asia. 

As Washington remains embroiled in domestic economic issues and
conflicts throughout the Middle East and elsewhere, the Obama
administration has come under great scrutiny for not living up to
the promise of rebalancing to the Asia-Pacific, the world’s most
economically-dynamic region. The US president’s recent trip to
the region was the most significant and tangible development to
occur since the rebalancing policy was unveiled. 

Obama’s trip had two primary dimensions: deepening the role of
the US military throughout the Asia-Pacific, and shoring up
support for the faltering Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP)
agreement, an all-encompassing trade deal led by Washington that
would embolden transnational corporate power at great public

As the Obama administration moves ahead on plans to relocate some
60 percent of its navy into the region, Washington’s current Asia
doctrine is grounded in the notion that no other power can be
allowed to reach parity with the United States. Washington’s
strategy to pivot toward the Asia-Pacific is adorned with the
language of pragmatism and neutrality, and despite repeated
denials, the Obama administration’s actions are quite
transparently aimed at capping the influence of a rapidly
developing China.

Washington has inserted itself into complicated, long-standing
historical and territorial disputes under the guise of
neutrality, which risks potentially setting the stage for an
irreparable strategic blunder: antagonizing two major world
powers simultaneously at a time when relations between the US and
Russia are already deteriorating over the crisis in Ukraine. 

President Obama’s milestone four-nation tour of the Asia-Pacific
may have laid the foundations for the region’s local territorial
disputes to grow into an increasing tense superpower stand-off. 

Japan refuses to yield on trade

The US president’s visit to Japan comes at a time when the
right-leaning administration of Shinzo Abe has taken
controversial positions on historical and territorial issues that
have inflamed relations with China and South Korea, which view
the incumbent Japanese government as being openly unrepentant for
past atrocities. 

The White House previously expressed reservations toward Abe’s
calls to consider revising official apologies over Japan’s
wartime conduct, and his controversial visit to the Yasukuni
shrine that honors Japan’s WWII war dead, including over a dozen
convicted Class-A war criminals. Abe made a ritual offering to
the Yasukuni Shrine shortly before Obama’s arrival in Tokyo,
followed by 146 Japanese lawmakers who visited the shrine en
masse one day later, putting the US president in an awkward

These provocative gestures did little to derail Obama’s support
for Japan’s position in its tense territorial dispute with China
over a chain of uninhabited islands in the East China Sea. In an
interview with Japan’s Yomiuri Shimbun
newspaper, Obama affirmed that the disputed islands fell within
the scope of Article 5 of the US-Japan Treaty of Mutual
Cooperation and Security, meaning that Washington would be
obliged to back Japan in the event of a military confrontation
over the islands with Beijing, which views the islands as an
integral part of its territory. 

Obama also enthusiastically pledged support for Abe’s moves to
amend Japan’s post-war pacifist constitution
, which has
traditionally limited Japan’s armed forces from going beyond a
self-defense role. 

In the interest of expanding the US-Japan alliance to counter the
growing clout of China, the US president has given Japanese
rightists a green light to pursue militarization policies that
will undoubtedly fuel regional antagonism. Rather than taking a
neutral position and steering Tokyo toward a de-escalation with
Beijing, Obama has effectively sent Abe the message that he can
challenge China’s bottom line without serious repercussions,
encouraging Japan to continue its inflexible position.
Obama may
have hoped that in exchange for backing Japan’s stance on
territorial disputes and constitutional reform, Abe would have
reciprocated by yielding on thorny trade issues, but he was

Obama allegedly put his chopsticks down
halfway through his informal sushi dinner with Abe and jumped
straight into discussions about trade. The White House is anxious
to seal the TPP trade deal, but is unwilling to give significant
concessions, forcing all countries to meet rigid criteria. Abe
risks losing support from his conservative voter base by reducing
tariffs on areas such as rice, sugar, beef, pork and dairy that
would adversely affect Japanese farmers. Obama was expecting to
come to a final agreement with Abe, but trade negotiators claim that there is still
“considerable distance” between the US and Japan on key
issues in the deal. 

Trade talks are not expected to recommence anytime soon, and
Obama was forced to reject suggestions that the deal is in danger
over his failure to persuade Abe into making painful concessions.

Dialogue with Pyongyang ruled out?

Obama’s trip to South Korea came as the country was still reeling
from the tragic sinking of the Sewol ferry, which killed scores
of youngsters. Security topped the agenda as reports of increased
activity at North Korea’s Punggye-ri nuclear test site wrought
condemnation from Seoul. President Park Geun-hye adopted a
hardline stance, calling for the rejection of dialogue with Pyongyang over the
nuclear issue if the North conducts a fourth nuclear test as

Pyongyang proposed a framework for better relations
with the South at the start of this year and urged its
willingness to meet for negotiations on the nuclear issue without
any preconditions. The attempted thaw in relations culminated in
reunions of separated families in February, amid Pyongyang’s
calls for Seoul to cancel its planned joint military drills with
the US. 

Given the circumstances, South Korean authorities could have
toned down this year’s drills as a gesture of reciprocity
following Pyongyang’s moves to host family reunions. Seoul’s
response was to hold the largest amphibian landing exercise with
the US in over two decades, followed by large-scale war
The lack of sincere measures to cool ties with
Pyongyang is evident in the actions of Seoul and Washington, who
are quick to accuse the North of provocations while flexing military muscles on its doorstep, ratcheting up anxiety and

Park and the Obama administration refuse to open dialogue with
Pyongyang unless it agrees to denuclearization as a precondition,
despite pressure from China that preconditions be
relaxed to allow the recommencement of the Six-Party talks. 

During a joint press conference, Park announced that plans to transfer operational
command of South Korea’s military in time of war, or OPCON, from
the US to South Korea would be further delayed, giving the
Pentagon de-facto control over South Korea’s military forces
beyond December 2015. 

Washington has also encouraged Seoul to strengthen missile
defense cooperation – which Park agreed to do – while deepening
trilateral cooperation between the US, Japan, and South Korea.
During his trip, Obama called for more sanctions against North
Korea and spoke of America’s capacity for military might,
creating every indication that Washington’s antagonistic
‘strategic patience’ policy against Pyongyang will remain

Malaysia’s delicate balancing act

Western media have billed Obama’s trip to Malaysia – the first
visit by a US president in nearly five decades – as being quite
successful. Malaysia was the only Muslim-majority country on the
president’s four-nation tour, and the only country not to have an
existing security treaty with the United States. 

Washington and Kuala Lumpur have always enjoyed strong trade
relations, but political relations were known to be tense during
the 22-year tenure of former PM Mahathir Mohamad, who took strong
positions against US foreign policy. Prime Minister Najib Razak,
a British-educated economist who assumed office in 2009 as a
reformer, has been much friendlier to the US. 

The New York Times described Malaysian leadership’s change of
attitude as an evolution from “deep suspicion, verging on
contempt, to a cautious desire for cooperation.” Suspicious
attitudes toward the US are still commonplace among certain
factions within the ruling party and the conservative religious
establishment. Several far-right Malay rights groups share the
same misgivings, lashing out at Obama following statements he made on racial equality in the

Trade and security topped the agenda during Obama’s visit, and
although progress was made in both areas, it’s likely that the US
delegation was hoping for a firmer stance on issues such as
territorial disputes in the South China Sea. Malaysia is China’s
largest trading partner within the ASEAN bloc, and of all the
countries in the region who have territorial disputes with
Beijing, the approach taken by Kuala Lumpur has been the most
low-key and non-adversarial. Sino-Malaysian ties were upgraded to
a ‘comprehensive strategic partnership’ level during Chinese
President Xi Jinping’s visit to Kuala Lumpur in October 2013,
while Najib and Obama agreed to upgrade ties to a ‘comprehensive
partnership’ at a joint news conference following their talks on

In the joint statement prepared by the two sides, Najib
called for the full implementation of the Declaration on the
Conduct of Parties regarding the South China Sea disputes, which
Chinese state-media welcomed, saying that Malaysia showed a
balanced attitude to avoid confrontation with China.

In an interview with Malaysian newspaper The Star, Obama alluded to his
administration’s commitment to ensuring the “freedom of
navigation in critical waterways,” which can be understood as a
euphemism for policing the Straits of Malacca, one of China’s
most critical supply routes responsible for transporting much of
the oil and raw materials needed by Beijing to maintain high
economic growth. Malaysia allows American warships to dock at
ports throughout the country, but does not host any US military
bases, and does not seek a hostile relationship with Beijing. 

It is unclear how deep Malaysia’s commitment to security
cooperation with the US will go, although the Obama
administration has pledged to assist in the development of
Malaysia’s maritime enforcement capacity, setting the stage for
deeper military-to-military cooperation. In the economic sphere,
there were no breakthroughs on the TPP trade deal, with both
sides admitting that significant differences still remain. 

Najib, however, made clear that the overall benefits of the TPP
would far outweigh the disadvantages of the pact; he mentioned
his commitment to getting acceptance from Malaysian people, but
offered no specifics on how public acceptance of the trade deal
would be measured. Mahathir, who still exerts a degree of
influence on traditionalists within the ruling party, commented that Malaysia should not be
pressured to agree to the terms stipulated by the TPP. The former
PM has routinely called for the trade deal to be dropped, and a
large segment of Malaysian civil society and activists are also
opposed to the deal. 

As a country that has put much emphasis on a non-confrontational
foreign policy, Malaysia is well suited to leverage its good ties
with Washington and Beijing to promote a conciliatory solution to
territorial issues. Malaysia finds itself somewhere between being
a warm friend to the Obama administration but not yet a staunch
US ally with deep security ties.

Philippines signs 10-year defense agreement

To coincide with the last stop of his four-nation tour,
Washington and Manila inked a controversial defense agreement to allow greater numbers of US
soldiers to remain in the country on a rotational basis. 

The reopening of foreign bases is prohibited by the 1987
Constitution, but the latest defense pact – negotiated largely in
secret, and fast-tracked into law under the auspices of an
executive agreement without ratification by the Philippine
Congress – gives the US government de facto basing access in the

The US maintained large military bases in northern regions of the
Philippines until the Philippines congress voted to close them
down in 1991, but American forces were allowed to return in 1999
under a temporary stay agreement that saw US troops conduct joint
training with the Philippines military. The new agreement is far
broader, allowing the US military to establish permanent
facilities within Philippine military facilities, also paving the
way for American military technology to be sold to the

Philippines President Benigno Aquino’s rationale for expanding
the US presence in his country is to provide the Philippines with
a powerful deterrent in the midst of Manila’s bitter territorial
row with Beijing, as both countries lay claim to the Scarborough
Shoal and Second Thomas Shoal in the potentially oil- and
gas-rich South China Sea. The Philippines and its neighbors
undoubtedly have firm and legitimate grievances in the interest
of protecting their sovereignty and territorial integrity. 

It should be recognized that the disputed features falls within
the Philippine’s 200-nautical mile exclusive economic zone as
recognized by the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea; China has
resisted applying the procedures stipulated by the law to the
many reefs and islands that lie much closer to the Philippines
than to China. Manila has argued that Beijing has an obligation
to respect the Philippines’ rights to exercise control over areas
that fall within its 200-nautical mile exclusive economic zone. 

China claims that its sovereignty over the disputed areas can be
supported by abundant historical and legal evidence, which also
support Beijing’s maritime rights over three-quarters of the
South China Sea. Beijing has consistently called for settling
territorial issues through direct bilateral negotiations. 

this year, it offered the Philippines mutual disengagement from
the contested area, trade and investment benefits, and
postponement of the plans to declare an air defense
identification zone over the South China Sea. The Philippines
leadership rejected the proposal, and unilaterally filed a case
with the tribunal that arbitrates maritime disputes under the UN
Convention on the Law of the Sea.
China has resolved territorial disputes with 12 of the 14
countries with which it shares land borders, and the immense
complexities of these maritime territorial disputes require
levelheaded dialogue and a commitment from negotiations by both

The Philippines leadership may have legitimate grievances, but is
clearly not committed to seeking a resolution through dialogue,
resorting to hyperbolic name-calling. In an interview with the New York Times, Aquino
compared China to Nazi Germany, causing immense harm to bilateral
relations with Beijing. 

Much like the Obama administration’s position on Japan’s
territorial disputes, there is now a concern that backing by the
US military can encourage Manila to take a provocative and
reckless stance. 
Washington has entered the regional fold claiming to be a neutral
party and mediating force, yet it supports the territorial claims
of its allies and uses them as a justification to maximize its
own interests, transforming a regional dispute into a potential
super-power conflict, reducing the possibility for any peaceful

The recent security developments will deepen Manila’s historic
dependency on the United States, reinforcing its colonial
subordination to the strategic, military and regional priorities
of American hegemony. 

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Nile Bowie is a political analyst and photographer currently residing in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. He can be reached on Twitter or at

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