After a little more than a year of fanfare, US President Barack Obama’s “pivot” of political, economic and military attention to Asia and the Pacific seems to be fading. The clues are subtle and often appear in what does not happen or is not said rather than in what is done or said.
Obama hurried through a brief discussion of Japan with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe on Friday when they met for an hour in the Oval Office. Given time for amenities and translation, about a half-hour was left for substance. Afterward, the two leaders met the press for 20 minutes to deliver platitudes, then had a working lunch.
A revealing difference in attitude was seen in remarks to the press. Obama said the discussion with Abe had been a “bilateral meeting,” meaning one of many daily meetings he has with other leaders. Abe termed it a “summit meeting,” giving it top place.
In the afternoon, US Secretary of State John Kerry’s meeting with Japanese Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida produced more platitudes. There was no state dinner, no side trip to the presidential retreat at Camp David for informal meetings and no gathering with key Congressional leaders.
Late in the day, in a talk at a Washington think tank, Abe responded with a forthright speech on security. It was, perhaps inadvertently, a mild rebuke for Obama’s diminished interest in US relations with Asia.
In a related move, the White House dispatched a second-level delegation to the inauguration of South Korean President Park Geun-hye. Only the national security adviser, Tom Donilon, and an aide went from Washington.
However, in 2008, then-US secretary of State Condolezza Rice represented the US, as did then-US Secretary of State Colin Powell in 2003, at South Korean inaugurations in a nation sensitive to manners, appearances and “face.”
Over the weekend, Kerry, considered by some Asian diplomats to be Eurocentric, departed on a swing through Europe and the Middle East, on his first trip abroad in his new post. In contrast, former US secretary of state Hillary Rodham Clinton flew to Japan, Korea, Indonesia and China on her first official journey abroad.
The reason for the slackening: Obama appears to be consumed with domestic politics. This was evident while he was running for re-election last fall, and in his inaugural and state of the union addresses. Clinton, an initial advocate of the pivot, has also left office.
Clinton first made public the “pivot,” later renamed the “rebalance,” in Foreign Policy magazine in November 2011. She said that the US should “lock in a substantially increased investment — diplomatic, economic, strategic and otherwise — in the Asia-Pacific region” over the next decade.
The theme of Abe’s address to the Center for Strategic and International Studies, the prominent think tank, was straightforward, a striking departure for a Japanese accustomed to speaking in vague circumlocution. “Japan is back,” Abe said. “Keep counting on my country.”
He set three tasks for Japan under his leadership:
First, as the Asia-Pacific and Indian Ocean regions become more prosperous, “Japan must remain a leading promoter of rules” for trade, investment, intellectual property, labor and the environment.
Second, Japan must continue to be ”a guardian of the global commons, like the maritime commons,” helping to keep it open for the benefit of everyone.
Third, Japan must work more closely with the US, South Korea, Australia and other like-minded democracies throughout the region.
With an oblique reference to Japan’s dispute with China over the Senkaku Islands — known in Taiwan as the Diaoyutai Islands (釣魚台) — the prime minister said: “No one should ever doubt the robustness of the Japan-US alliance.”
The US-Japan security treaty obliges the US to help defend Japan, which administers the islands claimed by China.
“Looking back, it is remarkable that the bond developed between Japan and the US has weathered bad days and good, to have lasted for well more than one-fourth of the entire history of the US,” Abe said.
“Yet, that should not surprise anyone,” he added. “The US, the oldest and the biggest maritime democracy, and Japan, Asia’s most experienced and biggest liberal democracy, which is also an ocean-goer, are a natural fit. They have been so for many decades, and they will remain so for many more to come.”
Richard Halloran is a commentator in Hawaii.