From the elaborate details of a Japanese state visit to the more mundane question of how much face-time to give each of his Asian hosts, President Barack Obama’s aides spent months meticulously scripting his four-country tour of the region.
But as the week-long trip wrapped up on Tuesday it was clear that, while Obama scored points with skeptical allies simply by showing up, not everything followed the White House plan.
The U.S. president’s clear aim was to demonstrate that his long-promised strategic shift towards Asia and the Pacific, widely seen as aimed at countering China’s rising influence, was real. Early reviews from the region were mixed.
“The key is what happens next,” said Michael Kugelman, an Asia expert at the Wilson Center think-tank in Washington. “If the U.S. starts dragging its feet, the skeptical whispers could begin anew.”
Japan, Obama’s first stop, set the tone for a glass-half-full/glass-half-empty dynamic that characterized the trip.
He was notably unable to announce a two-way trade deal with Japan, despite an informal “sushi summit” with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and marathon last-ditch negotiations, raising questions over the momentum behind a broader trans-Pacific pact.
Things went so badly the two sides had to delay issuing a summit-ending joint communiqué – normally a mere formality between close allies – until just before Obama left.
In the end, they lauded progress towards a deal, perhaps the best that could have been hoped for given the bitter domestic debates over trade in both countries.
More important from the Japanese perspective was Obama’s assurance that Washington would come to Tokyo’s defense – including of tiny islands at the heart of a territorial dispute with China – coupled with a U.S. warning to Beijing against trying to change the status quo by force.
Kunihiko Miyake, a former Japanese diplomat, said Obama’s statement that their mutual security treaty covers the disputed isles, known as the Senkaku in Japan and the Diaoyu inChina, was “more than enough” for Tokyo.