Obama’s trip takes place when the Chinese-Japanese relations have been tensed; Japan and the Republic of Korea are on disputes over sea and islands sovereignty; and the Democratic People's Republic of Korea has continuously test fired missiles in retaliation to the joint military drills between the US and the Republic of Korea.
In addition, the Ukrainian crisis, the Israeli-Palestinian peace talks, and the Syrian civil war have distracted the US’ policy towards Asia.
Confirming the US’s rebalancing to Asia-Pacific strategy
Prior to the trip, Senior Director for Asian Affairs of the National Security Council Evan Medeiros confirmed the US full commitments to Asia-Pacific. He said it’s not for political purposes but the protection of the US’ economic and defense interests in this region. Obama has busy working schedules in 4 Asian countries, particularly in its two strategic partners of Japan and the RoK.
Japan is the first stop of Obama’s tour. He is scheduled to attend a banquet hosted by Japanese Emperor Akihito and visit Meiji temple in Tokyo. He is due to hold talks with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe on measures to reinforce their strategic relations, security partnership, and trade activities including the negotiation of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) agreement.
In a press conference prior to the visit on April 21, Deputy National Security Advisor Ben Rhodes said the US-Japan alliance is a carved stone in Washington’s Asia strategy and the US commits to foster the relationship.
In Seoul, Obama will meet with his counterpart Park Geun-hye on how to enhance the bilateral alliance and the latest developments on the Korean peninsula. They will also discuss territorial disputes in Asia including in the South China Sea and the East Sea and the US’ assistance for the RoK in the Sewol ferry capsize.
During his two-day visit to Malaysia, Obama will discuss with the host the TPP negotiations, security and defense cooperation, marine security, and the East Sea disputes.
In the Philippines, Obama will repeat the US’ commitments to Manila’s security. NSC Senior Director for Asian Affairs Evan Medeiros said Obama will underscore the Code of Conduct (COC) in the East Sea between ASEAN and China as an important mechanism in handling disputes in the region. The US will focus on the need to push ahead the building of the COC to create a positive and constructive framework to manage territorial disputes.
During this Asian tour, Obama will have to strengthen its mediate role in the RoK-Japan relations which has worsened due to territorial disputes and Japanese officials’ visits to Yasukuni shrine. Tension between its alliances is considered the most concern in Washington’s policy towards Asia.
Persuading countries including Japan and Malaysia to conclude the TPP negotiations is a highlight in Obama’s agenda. The US-Japan ministerial level negotiation on the TPP failed has put more pressure on Obama’s trip. The US and Japan have obtained certain progress in the TPP negotiation but they remain apart in beef, pork, and dairy products tariffs.
The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea’s strong reaction is another impact on Obama’s trip. DPRK’s Foreign Ministry said in a statement on April 21 that Obama’s visits have obstructed the 6-party talks on denuclearization of the Korean peninsula and incited an armed race in Asia-Pacific. Seoul has threatened to double its protection measures and warned the US to reconsider its possible provocative activities to Pyongyang before it’s too late.