comscore Obama aims to shore up Asian allies against Chinese might

Obama aims to shore up Asian allies against Chinese might

Honolulu Star-Advertiser logo
Unlimited access to premium stories for as low as $12.95 /mo.
Get It Now
    President Barack Obama waves from the top of the steps of Air Force One at Antalya International Airport in Antalya

ANTALYA, Turkey >> President Barack Obama’s arrival in the Philippines on Tuesday morning will kick off five days of presidential diplomacy aimed at bolstering America’s allies in the region against China’s economic and military might.

White House officials said Monday that Obama would continue consultations with world leaders about the terror attacks in and around Paris last week, which had already overshadowed the planned economic discussions at the Group of 20 meeting here.

But Obama is eager to press the case for what his administration calls a "rebalance" in Asia that aims to empower countries in the region to compete with China by developing closer diplomatic ties and pushing for more open trade.

"We’re strengthening relations with our treaty allies. We’re building ties to new partners and strengthening regional institutions," said Susan E. Rice, the president’s national security adviser.

Central to that effort is the president’s yearslong push for the adoption of the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement, a trade pact involving a dozen countries, including the United States. Obama will arrive in the region with the agreement in hand, though not yet approved by Congress.

In meetings with more than a half-dozen world leaders and in a speech to business executives, Obama plans to make his case that passage of the pact is critical to the region’s economic health.

"They will celebrate the achievement of that agreement," said Matthew P. Goodman, a specialist in Asian economics at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. "Economics is strategy. And if that’s true, then the president is heading out on this whirlwind trip in a very strong position."

But any celebration of the trade deal — as well as talks with other nations about the possibility of joining the partnership in the future — may be overshadowed by discussions about how to confront China’s activities in the South China Sea.

China’s broad territorial claims over islands and waters in the sea have riled its neighbors, many of which have similar claims. In recent months, the Chinese have been creating seven new islands in the sea, and building ports, military facilities and airstrips on the land.

Although the United States has not taken a formal position on the competing territorial claims, Obama has sought to defend the right of ships to navigate freely through international waters. In late October, the U.S. Navy sent a destroyer into waters within 12 miles of the islands.

"What we do take a strong position on is protecting the rights, freedoms and lawful uses of the sea and airspace that’s guaranteed to all countries," said Josh Earnest, the White House press secretary.

Obama is scheduled to hold one-on-one meetings during his visit to Asia with the leaders of Australia, Canada, Japan, the Philippines, Singapore, Malaysia and Laos. Several are likely to press him to be more aggressive in challenging China in the South China Sea.

But while saying that the South China Sea will be a "central issue" during Obama’s trip, Rice has sought to lower expectations that the meetings this week will produce a specific "code of conduct" for the region, as some of the nations’ leaders have urged.

"I’m confident that this will continue to be something that we and others encourage, but I don’t expect it to be a concrete outcome of this particular visit," Rice told reporters last week.

Obama is expected to make a demonstration of the United States’ commitment to freedom of navigation in the region by visiting a maritime facility at a port in Manila. Aides did not provide specifics, but said the visit would "showcase our maritime cooperation with the Philippines."

The United States and the Philippines agreed last year to a landmark deal that would reopen some Philippine bases to U.S. military equipment and personnel. But that agreement has been held up in the Philippines’ Supreme Court, and U.S. officials said they did not expect a major announcement during Obama’s visit.

Later in the week, the president is scheduled to travel to Kuala Lumpur, the capital of Malaysia, where he will continue consulting with the region’s leaders in two separate meetings.

He is also scheduled to visit a refugee center in Malaysia to highlight what the administration describes as a global crisis of people fleeing violence in their countries.

The visit "is not focused just on Malaysia or Asia, but rather speaks to the global responsibility that countries have to provide support for refugees," said Benjamin J. Rhodes, the president’s deputy national security adviser.

The visit to Malaysia may be awkward for Obama because Najib Razak, the nation’s prime minister, is embroiled in a corruption scandal. In September, it was revealed that federal investigators in the United States were examining allegations of corruption involving Najib.

Last year, Obama played golf with Najib during the president’s annual vacation in Hawaii.

Comments have been disabled for this story...

Click here to see our full coverage of the coronavirus outbreak. Submit your coronavirus news tip.

Be the first to know
Get web push notifications from Star-Advertiser when the next breaking story happens — it's FREE! You just need a supported web browser.
Subscribe for this feature

Scroll Up