FPI Analysis: Challenges Loom as Obama Visits Asia

April 21, 2014

By FPI Policy Director Robert Zarate & Senior Policy Analyst Patrick Christy

President Barack Obama is set to visit Asia this week, with stops in Japan, South Korea, Malaysia, and the Philippines.  House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-VA), House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R-WI), Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard (D-HI), and other House lawmakers are already visiting Asia in a separate trip.  The parallel visits by leaders in the Executive and Legislative Branches offer an important opportunity to the United States to reaffirm its longstanding commitment to the region amid rising security and economic challenges in Asia.

Challenges to U.S. & Allied Security in Asia

Security issues are sure to be at the top of the agenda as the president and congressional lawmakers meet with Asian leaders.  For one, as the People’s Republic of China continues its decades-long program to modernize its military, it is shifting the Indo-Pacific’s balance of power in worrisome ways.  For another, North Korea’s growing nuclear, missile and conventional military capabilities are posing grave and growing dangers to South Korea, Japan, and the United States.

China, which announced last month a 12.2 percent increase to its declared military budget, is investing heavily in weapons for anti-access/area-denial (A2/AD) missions—or what Chinese strategists call “counter-intervention” missions.  As the Pentagon warned in last year’s annual report on Chinese military power, Beijing’s growing A2/AD capabilities include “advanced short-and medium-range conventional ballistic missiles, land-attack and anti-ship cruise missiles, counter-space weapons, and military cyberspace capabilities.”  China also is building a modern fleet of surface warships and plans to add as many as 80 submarines to its current fleet of 55 ships.

All this comes as the United States is preparing to enter a third year of forced cuts to the military that will slash nearly $1 trillion from projected defense spending over a decade.  These forced cuts are harming our military’s readiness for combat in the near term, and its capacity and capabilities over the long term.  Indeed, Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel warned in February 2014 that the diffusion of advanced military technologies to China and other competitors “means that we are entering an era where American dominance on the seas, in the skies, and in space can no longer be taken for granted.”

As China continues to grow its military might, it is already assuming a more assertive posture in its maritime and territorial conflicts with America’s regional allies and partners.  In November 2013, Beijing announced, with no prior consultation, the creation of an expansive Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) that covers much of the East China Sea, including the disputed Senkaku Islands that Japan administratively controls.  Earlier this year, news reports suggested that China may be contemplating the imposition of a second ADIZ over portions of the South China Sea.  And last month, Chinese coastguard ships tried, but failed for the time being, to block civilian Filipino supply ships from delivering food, water, and troop reinforcements to a military outpost in the West Philippines Sea.  China’s growing assertiveness appears designed to probe and test America’s alliance commitments in the Pacific, while also cumulatively expanding China’s argument for administrative control over contested islands and waters.

At the same time, North Korea has renewed efforts to menace South Korea and Japan.  In late March 2014, as President Obama held a special trilateral meeting with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and South Korean President Park Geun-hye in the Netherlands, North Korea provocatively launched two medium-range ballistic missiles (MRBMs) that landed in the sea between the Korean Peninsula and Japan.  Days later, Pyongyang vowed to initiate a “new form of nuclear test,” and then fired hundreds of artillery shells just over its western sea border with South Korea, prompting Seoul to respond in kind by firing hundreds of artillery shells back across the water boundary.  Many observers believe that North Korea has now made preparations for its fourth nuclear test detonation at its Punggye-ri underground test site, with news reports speculating that Kim Jong Un may order a nuclear test to coincide with President Obama’s visit to Asia.

Challenges to America’s Trade Agenda in Asia

In their respective meetings with Asian leaders, President Obama and congressional leaders are sure also to discuss America’s economic and trade agenda in the region.  The United States is trying to conclude multilateral talks for the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), a far-reaching free trade agreement that would promote economic integration and liberalization between the United States and 11 other countries—namely, Australia, Brunei, Canada, Chile, Japan, Malaysia, Mexico, New Zealand, Peru, Singapore, and Vietnam. 

TPP has emerged as the key economic plank of President Obama’s “rebalance” to Asia.  However, the Obama administration failed to meet its goal of finishing the TPP’s final text by the end of 2013 due to substantive disagreements with other countries.  In particular, Washington and Tokyo still disagree on how the TPP should increase foreign access to Japan’s agricultural markets and to America’s auto sector.  As Reuters reported on April 18th:  “The United States wants Japan to open its rice, beef and pork, dairy and sugar markets—politically powerful sectors that Abe has vowed to defend.  Japan wants a timetable on U.S. promises to drop tariffs of 2.5 percent on imports of passenger cars and 25 percent on light trucks.”

Nonetheless, President Obama’s 2014 agenda for trade policy aims to finish TPP talks this year.  Indeed, trade negotiations are continuing with bilateral U.S.-Japanese talks in Tokyo this week and 12-party talks set for mid-May 2014 in Vietnam.  Yet even if negotiating parties succeed in concluding TPP’s final text, another hurdle remains—namely, whether the White House can convince Congress to renew the president’s “fast track” trade promotion authority (TPA). 

Trade promotion authority, which expired in July 2007, would not only empower the president to negotiate foreign trade agreements like the Trans-Pacific Partnership, but also guarantee that Congress cannot amend or filibuster the agreements, but rather only vote to approve or reject them.  Yet it remains unclear how much political capital President Obama is willing to spend to make the case for trade promotion authority this year.  Although Obama urged congressional support for TPA during his State of the Union Address in January 2014, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) has blocked TPA from moving forward, and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) has called it “out of the question.”

Overcoming Security & Trade Challenges in Asia

President Obama and congressional leaders should use their respective visits to Asia to reaffirm and renew their shared determination to overcome these challenges to America’s security and trade agenda in the region.  In particular, they should:

  • Reassure America’s allies and security partners.  Earlier this month Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel pointedly answered a question about China’s recent maritime and territorial claims by saying:  “You cannot go around the world and redefine boundaries and violate territorial integrity and sovereignty of nations by force, coercion, and intimidation, whether it’s in small islands in the Pacific, or large nations in Europe.”  While words matter—and both President Obama and congressional leaders should echo Secretary Hagel’s message during their respective visits to Asia—actions matter, too.  Both the White House and Capitol Hill should convey their resolve to work together and responsibly reverse a decade’s worth of deep cuts to defense spending that are harming our military’s readiness, capacity, and capabilities in Asia and other regions.
  • Support Japan’s growing regional security role.  In 2013, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s government worked with the Japanese parliament to enact a new law to protect national security secrets and to establish a new National Security Council, authored the country’s first-ever National Security Strategy, announced that Japan would increase its defense budget in the coming fiscal year by 2.2 percent, and updated the country’s guidelines on weapons exports.  Washington and Tokyo are now working to revise bilateral security guidelines that will redefine and enhance how the two nations cooperate in future military operations.  Both President Obama and congressional leaders should praise Japan for seeking to play a larger role in the U.S.-Japan security alliance.
  • Encourage more security cooperation between Japan and South Korea.  Last month, President Obama held a high-level trilateral meeting with South Korean President Park  and Japanese Prime Minister Abe in the Netherlands.  It was an important meeting given how longstanding historical grievances have hindered broader security cooperation between Tokyo and Seoul.  Indeed, the two countries postponed the June 2012 signing of an important intelligence-sharing agreement that would have allowed South Korea and Japan to more easily share critical information about mutual security concerns.  The Obama administration should help to facilitate more frequent interactions between these two key U.S. allies, with the long-term goal of increasing cooperation and coordination amid rising security threats in the region.
  • Commit to enhancing the capabilities of U.S. allies.  During his visit to Manila next week, President Obama may sign a bilateral agreement that would give the U.S. military increased access to Philippine military facilities.  The United States currently has similar access agreements with Australia and Singapore.  Given the Philippines’ growing maritime security concerns, if the U.S.-Philippine access agreement materializes, it would represent a positive step for the alliance.  Moving forward, the president and congressional lawmakers should seek new ways to bolster Filipino defense capabilities further, such as working with technologically-capable allies to improve Manila’s intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) capabilities and its maritime situational awareness.
  • Reaffirm U.S. resolve to advance the Trans-Pacific Partnership.  The Asia-Pacific already accounts for nearly 55 percent of global domestic product and 44 percent of world trade.  Both the Executive and Legislative Branches can—and should—do more to persuade the American public on why concluding the TPP agreement would advance our nation’s interests and values.  As part of realizing TPP, President Obama should back up his words of support for the renewal of “fast track” trade promotion authority with deeds, and actively reach out to like-minded congressional lawmakers on both sides of the aisle.

In a letter accompanying a recent report on U.S. policy towards Asia, Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Robert Menendez (D-NJ) warned that “despite progress in some areas, implementation of the [Asia] rebalance thus far has been uneven, which creates the risk that the rebalance may well end up as less than the sum of its parts.”  The United States can avoid that outcome.  With their respective visits to Asia this week, President Obama and congressional leaders have an important opportunity to signal to Asia their shared resolve to overcome the growing challenges to America’s security and trade agenda in the region.  They should seize the opportunity.

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The Foreign Policy Initiative seeks to promote an active U.S. foreign policy committed to robust support for democratic allies, human rights, a strong American military equipped to meet the challenges of the 21st century, and strengthening America’s global economic competitiveness.
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