The Business Times

Tough balancing act awaits Obama in Asia

Published Tue, Mar 4, 2014 · 10:00 PM
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WHEN President Barrack Obama announced the US "pivot" towards East Asia in 2010, it suggested a smart wheeling of the American presence away from a supposedly stable Middle East (following US intervention) and from a post-Cold War Europe towards a region of relative stability. This is not quite the East Asia that Mr Obama will be coming to when he embarks upon his visit to Japan, South Korea, Malaysia and the Philippines at the end of April. Not since the Vietnam War has East Asia loomed so large in terms of an apparent threat to regional security as it does now, with Japan and China confronting each other over territorial claims to the point of possible clashes and with Japan-South Korea relations strained to breaking point.

Mr Obama's visit is intended to make up for one he cancelled last year because of the government shutdown in Washington. Now, the focus of a trip originally intended to be exclusively on South-east Asia will inevitably shift towards the Northeast where potential frictions over territorial and other issues are strong, especially since China announced its East China Sea Air Defense Identification Zone.

Mr Obama faces the unenviable task of steering the US ship of state through or around these dangerous shoals while avoiding the impression that Washington is seeking to take sides. Yet, by the very act of pivoting - a term that has strong military connotations - the United States implied that it was going to be stepping up its strategic, "peace-keeping" role in East Asia as well as reinforcing its economic presence in the region.

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