Later today US President Barack Obama will begin a short tour through Asia, to Japan and South Korea in the north, and to Malaysia and the Philippines in the south. The punditry will be overwhelming and almost entirely self serving. Elites and interests of every stripe will tell Obama what to say, how to say it, how to signal resolve and credibility to China, what US trade policy should be, and so on.
So instead of suggesting yet another laundry list of to-dos, I thought I would look at how the president's trip will be instrumentalised by relevant parties to pursue their own agendas. A high profile trip like this will throw light on the intellectual struggle to define the US presence, both in Asia and Washington. Here are some predictions:
1. Hawks and neocons
Post-Crimea, there should be a fair amount of hawk hysteria that US alliances in the region are 'weakening' (watch CSIS go into overdrive here, here, and here). Obama will be cast as a dovish, dithering appeaser; his 'red-lines' around Senkaku and North Korea will be called 'pink.' Fox News will intone that regional allies do not 'trust' Obama. Vague suggestions will be made that China intends to slice off northern North Korea or snatch Senkaku by the 'Crimean model,' even though Chinese irredentism (other than the well known Taiwan issue) has never been a factor in East Asian international politics. Little empirical evidence will actually be presented for these fears, beyond generalised claims about power politics or 'Munich.'
This is think tank boilerplate with limited correspondence to the actual social science on credibility. It should instead be read as the US foreign policy community's desire to station even more forces in Asia as a marker of US hegemony, despite strong evidence that US allies are free riding and growing budgetary competition between US domestic needs and its enormous defence budget.
2. South Korea
To read the South Korean media on the US alliance is to enter a world where the US 'needs' South Korea and the prestige captured from a direct relationship with the US is almost as important as the defence guarantee. Expect the South Korean press to push hard the notion that, because the US has parallel alliances with Japan and South Korea, South Korea is just as important to the US as Japan. The South Korean media will gush that South Korea is a 'bedrock' or 'cornerstone' of the US alliance in Asia. This in turn will be used to claim that Washington does not listen to Seoul enough but should; otherwise America's alliances in Asia might fall apart.
That none of that is true is irrelevant. Nationalist self promotion will be ubiquitous. Competition with Japan is so deeply entrenched in Korean foreign policy thinking that the US alliance and the president's trip will almost certainly be instrumentalised for the purpose of elevating Korea against Japan. As an example, look at what happened last time the Korean media perceived the US to be tilting toward Japan over Korea.
Does it even need to be said any more that the PLA and Chinese hawks will read the trip as yet further proof of US encirclement? I would bet money that the Global Times will run one of its usual vitriolic editorials, complete with the typical line about the US facilitating a 'return of Japanese militarism.' That Japanese militarism never seems to actually return (but is always apparently in the process of doing so) does not appear to reduce the appeal of this chestnut in the Chinese media. Xi Jinping seems to be more interested in a hawkish, anti-Japanese foreign policy than his predecessors, which is in turn one of the very reasons for Obama's trip. So it would be a big surprise if the Chinese Communist Party forewent an opportunity to bemoan US 'hegemonism,' particularly during the Japan leg of the trip.
For those who fear that China and the US may slip into a downward tit-for-tat spiral toward conflict, the rhetorical sturm-und-drang of these trips is never helpful. Hawks on both sides will be heartened by all the hard talk coming soon.
This too will be a disappointment. Japanese conservatives particularly will use US presidential attention to deflect regional concerns about Pacific War remembrance. Why go through tough introspection when the US superpower is an ally? Why change? That Abe is prime minister only heightens the likelihood of this status-quo endorsing response. If the Japanese leg goes especially well, we may be 'lucky' enough to get yet another outburst of historical revisionism, post-Obama trip, from a major Japanese right-wing voice, perhaps along the lines of the NHK flap earlier this year.
In short, a lot of the trip is pre-scripted. It is almost as if these competing elites have assigned roles to play in a drama we have all seen fought out before. So in that sense the sociology of this drama is more interesting than anything likely be said on the trip: each group listed (and others too, presumably) are trying to capture the prestige of the US presidency to legitimise their understanding of the alliances.
Finally, two issues that will not receive the attention they should.
The issues I would bring up, were I the president, are trade liberalisation and allied burden sharing. The East Asian debate is dominated by security concerns, given China's South China Sea behaviour and the panic ignited by the Crimea annexation. But the long term structural solution to Chinese belligerence (short of extreme answers like war or revolution) is the continued tying of China into a liberal world order, and the most obvious doorway in is trade. Already China is far more politically liberal today than when it began its economic modernisation drive.
Next, the long term security position of the US in Asia, as in Europe, is constantly strained by low allied military expenditures. US budget constraints, an ageing population, and the Tea Party's insistence on smaller government will impact the size of the US Asian footprint, regardless of elite hawk resistance (point 1 above). The Asian allies would be wise to adjust.