THE BLOG
04/26/2014 06:46 pm ET Updated Jun 26, 2014

Asia-Pacific Pivot: Obama Trip So Far As Important for What Hasn't Happened As for What Has Happened

Pool via Getty Images

While the shouting but, notably, not shooting continues in the Ukraine crisis, and the Middle East peace process collapses, President Barack Obama is in the middle of his four-nation Asia-Pacific tour. How's it going, amidst very predictable distractions from Russia and Israel? Fair to middling.

Obama told Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and their audience in Japan what they wanted to hear -- that the US-Japan mutual security treaty will bring in the US on the side of Japan if war breaks out with China over the Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea -- while making it clear to both Tokyo and Beijing that it would be odd for them to fight over some rock piles in the middle of the ocean.

Then Obama went to South Korea, greeted upon arrival there by news that North Korea may be prepping another nuclear test in honor of his Pacific sojourn. If you think you've seen this movie before, you have. The difference this time is that the kid dictator was supposed to be more interested in material rather than martial doings, following sage counsel under the wing of his wise uncle. That would be his wise uncle whom he had executed.

Is the administration's misread of North Korea a failure of intelligence or a failure of imagination, which is intelligence of a different sort?

Or is it a failure of bandwidth, of being a fairly insular administration whose otherwise impressive intellectual abilities are distracted by other matters?

In any event, he also told South Korean President Park Geun-hye what she and her domestic audience wanted to hear. That it is time for Japan to stop denying wrongdoing during the bad old imperial days in the first half of the 20th century and acknowledge the frequently exploitative and brutal Japanese behavior toward their Korean subjects. And that it's especially time to do that with regard to the so-called "comfort women," Korean women forced to work in brothels for Japanese soldiers.

From South Korea, Obama moved on to Malaysia for the rest of the weekend, and the first American presidential visit since that of Lyndon Johnson in the 1960s.

Obama closes out his Asia-Pacific tour on Monday and Tuesday in the Philippines, an archipelago nation of some 7000 islands (with nearly all in the 12th most populous country in the world concentrated on a handful of islands) and one of his most important stops of all. It will be the first ever visit of this unusually well-traveled American politician, who had seen much of the world before ever becoming president, with a special emphasis on the Pacific Basin in which he grew up.

Obama should close and announce an important new deal with the former American colony for a renewed regular rotational presence of US forces in Philippine bases. It will be interesting to see how directly Obama addresses what Filipinos regard as the bullying behavior of China toward its much smaller neighbor on the South China Sea, where Chinese forces are trying to claim islands and waters not far from the Philippines themselves as part of the People's Republic's breathtaking insistence that it has sovereignty over one of the world's most strategically significant seas.

But that's the close of the tour.

What has Obama accomplished with Japan and South Korea, the other two parts of what could be a very powerful tripartite alliance?

With Japan, he probably assuaged some concerns about the state of the longstanding mutual security alliance between Washington and Tokyo. Other senior US officials had confirmed that a Chinese move on the Senkaku Islands would trigger US intervention under the treaty. But Prime Minister Abe, who did graduate work in public policy at the University of Southern California, wanted to hear it from Obama.

China certainly took note, criticizing the statement, though in notably muted fashion. Obama made it clear he would regard a decision by China and Japan to go to war over the Senkakus as foolishness. But if it came about as part of an attempt by China to seize the islands, long held by Japan, or by actively enforcing the air defense zone China declared over much of the East China Sea, that would constitute aggression and an attack upon a key US ally under the treaty.

Obama also, I'm told, in private discussion with Abe, reiterated points made previously by other US officials about the need for Japan to cool concerns about its past imperial aggression in the Pacific War and earlier. That's key for the alliance with South Korea to work smoothly. And with Japan -- which in the Asia-Pacific can be a far more powerful and capable active ally than any the US ever had in the Middle East or Central Asia -- upgrading its military in the face of China's big build-up, that will be an important factor.

Of course, one of the most interesting things about Obama's splashy visit to Tokyo, complete with a state dinner in honor of America at the Imperial Palace, is what did not happen.

There was no big trade deal to announce, no next big step toward completion of the Trans Pacific Partnership.

It turns out that Japan is no more interested in giving up its subsidy and protection programs in agriculture and other areas than many people in the US are.

There's no fast track authority for the TPP. I think that at least part of the Obama Administration agreed to a corporate wish list they knew would never get through, between opposition in the Democratic Party, elements of the Republican Party, ingrained interests in Asian nations.

The Asia-Pacific Pivot away from our fateful fixation on the Islamic world of the Middle East and Central Asia to the rising Asia-Pacific region is much more about emerging power relations in what we laughingly call the global order, not another overarching free trade agreement, though there is plenty of trade to conducted. This is much more about the Navy than Wall Street, Alfred Thayer Mahan rather than Milton Friedman.

The concern among allies in the region about the evident hyper-partisan dysfunctionality of Washington -- Obama's trip having been postponed from last year due to the bizarre federal government shutdown -- and Obama's distractions elsewhere is much more about security and the rise of China than it is about notions of free trade.

It's important to remember that China isn't even part of the Trans Pacific Partnership. That exclusion is the most important thing about the TPP, because it reflects the deeper reality of the Asia-Pacific Pivot, the desire to contain China while continuing to engage China.

With regard to South Korea, the best thing that happened is what did not happen. Or, at least, what has not happened so far.

That would be another North Korean test, of either a nuclear weapon or a next-generation ballistic missile. Obama is safely away from the Korean peninsula with that particular shoe left undropped.

If Kim Jong-un wanted to mount a deeply serious provocation, he would have conducted the test with Obama close at hand.

But the slight sigh of relief occasioned by North Korea refraining from the test, at least while Obama was in the near vicinity, has to be accompanied by a much larger sigh of frustration. For the US has simply gotten North Korea wrong for a very long time.

Perhaps it's because of our own unique set of blinders.

Coming from a deeply materialist and hardly historically minded society, it's evidently difficult for quite a few Americans to grasp why North Korea would not be ultimately motivated by money. The impoverished nation could benefit from Western investment and the development of a consumer society.

But then it would just be, at best, another mediocre nation with a market orientation, a place cast in deep shadow by its far more succcessful neighbor glittering to the south.

Instead of what it is, a nuclear power that commands attention as potentially one of the more disruptive nations on the planet.

We'll see if North Korea acts during the back end of the Obama tour. It's safe to say that China will have a reaction after Obama leaves Manila in a few days. I'll have a lot more to say about the re-emerging US alliance with the Philippines.

We'll also see if the key to settling the Ukraine crisis, guaranteeing that NATO won't be a few hundred miles from Moscow, is any closer to reality. If not, all the saber rattling around Ukraine, a place with relatively minimal strategic significance for the US but immense strategic significance to Russia, may push Russia and China closer to a powerful alliance of their own.

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