On his trip to Japan last fall, Barack Obama proudly announced that he was America’s first Pacific president. The president lived in Indonesia as a young boy and went to high school in Hawaii. This past informs his present. Obama has visited the region, been the first U.S. president to attend an Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) summit, and underscored the importance of the region for U.S. policy. Instead of simply containing China, Obama has stressed a relationship of cooperation. He has called for strengthened alliances with South Korea and Japan. And he has offered a policy of careful diplomacy toward North Korea.
As with much of his foreign policy agenda, the president works best at creating an inclusive community with his rhetoric. His actions, however, often belie his words.
But let’s start with the bright spots. When it comes to North Korea, the learning curve has been steep for the president, but he has mastered it far more quickly than his predecessor. In spring 2009, North Korea tested a rocket, which it called a satellite, and a second nuclear device, which it called a success. The Obama administration overreacted to the first and then had to respond even more severely to the second by imposing tough sanctions. U.S.-North Korean relations had been on the upswing at the end of the Bush years, but they quickly froze over under Obama.
Obama, however, did not rely entirely on the fist. Instead of waiting for nearly six years before attempting to re-engage with Pyongyang, as the Bush administration did after 2001, the Obama administration waited only about six months. The visit to Pyongyang in December by envoy Stephen Bosworth was an important signal that Washington was willing to negotiate. The sanctions are still in place, and the United States has been distinctly cool to North Korea’s insistence on first negotiating a peace treaty. But at least the two sides are talking.
On China, the Obama administration has looked for opportunities to partner on global issues such as climate change and economic policy as well as regional issues such as the denuclearization of North Korea. There are perennial friction points between the two countries: U.S. arms sales to Taiwan, for instance, or Washington’s discussions with the Dalai Lama. Recently, the Obama administration angered the government in Beijing by announcing a $6 billion arms sale to Taiwan. Although this deal has been in the works since the early days of the Bush administration, the Obama team should have reviewed the sale in light of recent improvements in cross-strait relations.
Still, Washington has largely maintained an open attitude. Past administrations spent ample time lecturing the Chinese about human rights, the sanctity of the Internet, and how Beijing should deal with its neighbors. The Obama administration gets high marks for acknowledging that the Chinese government has gotten a couple things right — such as major subsidies of the sustainable energy sector — which the United States might actually learn from.
In Southeast Asia, Obama has taken ASEAN seriously enough to attend an ASEAN summit. In contrast, Bush’s Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice failed to show up at two of three previous summits. The new administration has also adopted a more nuanced approach to Burma, exploring principled engagement with the Burmese government that might eventually lead to the legalization of the opposition, the release of opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, and the democratization of the country.
Regardless of the president’s Pacific heritage and inclusive rhetoric, Asia isn’t high on the foreign policy agenda of the administration, and foreign policy overall has taken a backseat to domestic issues. So the Obama administration deserves praise for implementing some serviceable policies in the region, particularly at a time when key appointees were not yet in place.
What has dragged down the president’s grade, however, has been the relationship with Japan. In September, a new government took power in Tokyo as the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) finally ended the one-party rule of the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP). DPJ Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama called for a more equal relationship with the United States. And that included a renegotiation of a 2006 bilateral agreement on military bases in Okinawa that mandated closing the Futenma Air Base and relocating 8,000 U.S. Marines to Guam but, more controversially, building a new U.S. base in Nago, also in Okinawa.
The Obama administration responded with Bush-style pressure tactics. Washington insisted that Japan abide by the 2006 agreement, regardless of the fact that 80 percent of Okinawans oppose the new base construction, a recent mayoral election in Nago resulted in the victory of the anti-base candidate, and thousands of Japanese rallied in Tokyo at the end of January to protest the bases. Meanwhile, the environmental movement in Japan and the United States has mounted a vigorous campaign against the proposed base in Nago because it will destroy a priceless marine habitat.
Rather than ignoring these democratic choices and this environmental movement, the Obama administration should rethink the U.S.-Japan relationship. U.S. bases in Japan have outlived their Cold War purpose. Indeed, it’s time to end the Cold War in Asia more generally. Working with China, reducing the U.S. military footprint in the region, and burying the hatchet with North Korea: If the Obama administration accomplishes these tasks in the next three years, the president will become a Pacific president in spirit and not just in name.