| Apr 24 2014
The stakes are high for President Barack Obama's Asia trip. As I heard firsthand on my journey to Japan, the Philippines, and South Korea in January, the United States' allies are nervous. They are closely watching events halfway around the world, in Syria, and now in Ukraine. Every U.S. move or utterance on those issues is seen through the prism of growing uncertainty in Asia as a rising China begins to flex its muscles, asserting territorial claims across a large swathe of the region.
In Asia, the United States faces challenges to our national security interests similar to those elsewhere in the world: Our allies are questioning whether a military strained by sequestration can continue to play its traditional role of guarantor of peace and security. But America's allies also have to contend with China's increasingly aggressive behavior, which threatens to impact the free flow of trade and people in a region vital to global commerce.
While much appreciation remains for the administration's renewed focus on this vitally important region, our allies are looking to the president to back up the rhetoric with action. He will need to take a message of reassurance but also progress on key areas such as trade, tangible steps to strengthen and improve our alliances -- while at the same time avoiding the pitfalls of historical disputes and assuaging concerns about his approach toward China.
Here are five things that the president should keep in mind as he visits Japan, Korea, Malaysia, and the Philippines:
1. Reassure, Reassure, Reassure.
Given the security challenges facing our allies in Asia, they are watching with great concern the president's reluctance to lead in the Middle East, most notably in Syria. Added to this in recent weeks has been Russia's annexation of the sovereign territory of its neighbor Ukraine, an unsettling move for countries like the Philippines that face daily threats from Beijing about unresolved territorial disputes.
2. Don't let historical disputes undermine cooperation.
While the president is visiting Japan and South Korea, some will likely try to draw him into the ongoing disputes between the two countries over historical issues. Despite the progress made recently in trilateral talks among Obama, President Park Geun-hye of South Korea and Prime Minister Shinzo Abe of Japan brokered by the United States, these controversial topics simmer beneath the surface.
3. Show real leadership on trade.
I saw firsthand during my trip the impact of trade on our allies' economies as well as our own. The U.S.-Korea Free Trade Agreement, despite some issues with implementation, has been a great success and once the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) is concluded and other interested nations are able to join, it will allow us to further unite our economies, creating commerce and business opportunities for millions throughout North America, South America, and Asia.
4. Strengthen and improve alliances.
In the Philippines, the president will reportedly announce a framework agreement that will allow a rotational U.S. presence in that country. This will be a huge boost to an ally that is increasingly under pressure from Chinese harassment in the South China Sea, and will also be an important symbol of U.S. commitment to the security of the Philippines.
5. Speak frankly about China.
Even though China will not be on the president's itinerary, it will be the elephant in the room. Obama should speak more frankly in public during his trip about the U.S.-China relationship. The administration's rhetoric about China has added to the confusion and concern among our allies in the region about the direction of U.S. policy. Talk of a "new model of major power relations" has caused some to question whether Washington is more interested in negotiating over their heads with Beijing than in standing by our allies.
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