Obama, more popular in Asia than at home, may find foreign-policy opportunities
US President Barack Obama's visit to Japan for a summit of APEC leaders and South Korea for a G-20 meeting comes at a time when northeast Asia is a pivotal region for US security and economic policy. Issues involving China, Korea and Japan – from North Korea to the value of the renminbi – will likely play prominent roles in American foreign and domestic debates in the year ahead. Obama is setting the tone for American engagement with the region for the last two years of his first, and possibly only, term.
The president arrived in northeast Asia smarting from an embarrassing electoral setback at home. His party lost control of the US House of Representatives and barely maintained its majority in the US Senate. Just 46 percent of the American public approves of the president’s handling of his job, down from 64 percent in February 2009, right after he took office, according to Gallup surveys.
Obama’s declining domestic fortunes contrast sharply with his popularity and the revival of pro-American sentiment in the region. Three in four Japanese (76 percent) and Koreans (75 percent) and half the Chinese (52 percent) have confidence in Obama to do the right thing in international affairs, according to the Pew Global Attitudes Survey. Obama’s personal support is dramatically higher than that accorded President George W. Bush in 2008.
Meanwhile, support for the United States has never been greater in Korea (79 percent), up from a 46 percent US approval rating in 2003, and in China (58 percent), up from 34 percent in 2007. Two-thirds of Japanese (66 percent) have a favorable view of Uncle Sam, up from 50 percent as recently as 2008.
The stark contrast between Obama’s domestic and international political fortunes creates opportunities for the beleaguered president to refurbish his image at home through ambitious and creative foreign-policy initiatives.
At the same time, Obama’s domestic weakness could complicate successful pursuit of policies relevant to China, Korea and Japan. Leaders in Beijing, Seoul and Tokyo will carefully weigh the benefits of cooperating with Obama versus the risk that he cannot deliver on his promises or that domestic pressures will force him to take actions inimical to their interests.
Further complicating matters, the Chinese and the Koreans, but not the Japanese, have a newfound sense of self-confidence that may temper their willingness to cooperate with the United States. In the Pew survey of 22 populations around the world, the Chinese were the most full of themselves. For their part, the Koreans demonstrate growing self-assuredness in dealing with both China and North Korea. At the same time, public-opinion surveys show the Japanese to be so downbeat that Americans may find them a less-than-reliable partner.
Obama met with Chinese leaders at both APEC, a meeting of 21 members of Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation, and the G-20. US officials recently ratcheted up pressure on Beijing to appreciate its currency, and China closely parses Obama’s words for signs of more pressure. In any case, little support comes from Japanese or Korean leaders, both of whom recently intervened in currency markets to support their own currencies.
The G-20 did not support Obama's push to let the renminbi rise, and American trade tensions with China are growing. Washington has brought a spate of cases against Beijing at the World Trade Organization and proposed a cap, 4 percent of GDP, on China’s trade surplus. And the US business community is up in arms about China’s limitations of rare-earth exports and its proposed indigenous innovation policy, a protectionist stance that limits purchases of high-tech goods to companies that develop technology in China, thus forcing transfer of intellectual property to China.
Meanwhile, mounting evidence suggests that China is not enforcing agreed-upon sanctions against the Iranian nuclear program. Washington expresses ongoing desire for Beijing to pressure Pyongyang to engage in meaningful talks about its nuclear weapons arsenal. Obama officials are deeply troubled by China’s renewed assertions of sovereignty over the South and East China Seas.
In his first two years in office, Obama avoided economic confrontation with China in the interest of pursuing US foreign-policy objectives. With the American economy languishing, economic frictions with China are harder to manage for the politically weakened White House. Obama’s northeast Asian trip provides an opportunity to see the new balance he tries to strike. The US-Korean relationship is far less troubled, has more upside prospects and yet is far from assured.
Obama and South Korean President Lee Myung-bak have established a personal chemistry. This personal rapport could prove invaluable in forging a united front in the face of rapidly deteriorating economic conditions in North Korea and the political instability attendant with Pyongyang's ongoing transfer in power. Korean confidence in American steadfastness is a prerequisite for a tempered Seoul response to any North Korean provocations.
At the same time, Obama must understand that South Koreans are charting their own course with regard to their northern cousins. With a newfound self-assurance, Koreans now openly discuss eventual reunification with the North.
A more immediate source of friction was failure by the US and South Korean presidents to settle lingering trade disputes over cars and beef, thus endangering a free-trade agreement the Bush administration signed with Korea in 2007.
Meetings between advisors continue, but the window of opportunity is narrow. American presidential politics begin heating up in mid-2011, never a conducive environment for Congressional consideration of a trade agreement. Only 44 percent of Americans favor such a deal, according to the Chicago Council on Global Affair’s 2010 survey.
It's little wonder then that the Korean government is wary of whether the Obama administration can actually deliver Congressional approval. Ascendancy of the pro-trade Republican Party in the next US Congress should help, but any benefit is tempered by new, populist Tea Party adherents within the Republican ranks.
Obama’s Japan policy is an enigma. Tokyo, once termed by American officials as the “most important bilateral U.S. relationship, bar none,” has largely been absent from Washington’s radar screen until the recent China-Japan confrontation over the Senkaku Islands. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s backing of Japan in this dispute is more warning to Beijing than reassurance for Tokyo. But this episode creates new opportunities for cooperation on long-unresolved issues, such as the future of US military bases on Okinawa.
Given its geography, Japan remains the Pentagon’s largest aircraft carrier off the Asian mainland, Tokyo will continue to play a pivotal role in US geostrategic thinking, especially as tensions mount with China and North Korea’s trajectory remains uncertain. Nevertheless, the continued weakness of the Japanese economy and ongoing political instability in Tokyo make Japan an unreliable American partner in northeast Asia for some time to come.
The Obama trip to northeast Asia was ill-timed domestically, given his party’s recent crippling Congressional defeat. But it gave Obama opportunity to act presidential, address key economic and strategic challenges, and set the tone for American relations in a region where he's still popular and the United States is valued. Rarely have American presidents made foreign trips with so much to gain, but also so much to lose.
Bruce Stokes is a senior transatlantic fellow at the German Marshall Fund and a contributing editor to the National Journal.