President Barack Obama has embarked on a week-long trip to Asia meant to shore up allegiances and drum up trade with Asian friends without stirring up China. The idea is a good one, but to be successful Mr. Obama will have to overcome some obstacles of his own making.
The major one is trust.
The administration calls it his "pivot" to Asia. This administration is fond of one-word descriptions of complex diplomatic strategies, having proclaimed a "reset" in relations with Russia on taking office. The New York Times reported Sunday that the president is now planning to "contain" a Russia that has not exactly responded positively to the "reset."
The administration is also fond of laying down rules that other nations are supposed to follow.
Earlier this month, Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel admonished China for its aggressive policies in the South China Sea, as well Russia for its pressure on the Ukraine, saying, "You cannot go around the world and redefine boundaries and violate territorial integrity and sovereignty of nations by force, coercion or intimidation, whether it's in small islands in the Pacific or large nations in Europe."
But as in Europe, there are big questions about the current ability of the United States to deter "force, coercion and intimidation" in Asia.
President Obama decided in his first term to allow the U.S. Navy's active carrier strike force to decline to nine active groups from the 12 needed to meet America's security commitments in Asia, the Persian Gulf and the Mediterranean. That will make it hard to put muscle behind his "pivot." The dwindling U.S. fleet can only raise questions among those who rely on the United States to balance China's growing military power.
President Obama also created problems for himself - and the nation he leads - when he drew a "red line" against Syrian use of chemical weapons in 2012 and then did not enforce it in 2013.
U.S. allies in Asia "got very scared by the Syrian decision last summer," Douglas Paal, who heads the Asia program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, told The Washington Post.
Another self-made problem President Obama faces is his decision not to press Congress this year for trade negotiation authority that would allow him to reach a deal with Japan and other Asian nations in the Trans Pacific Partnership that Congress could approve or reject, but not amend.
His reluctance to face union opposition to the proposed trade deal, and his focus on the short term goal of defending Democratic seats in Congress up for election this year by postponing a vote on trade negotiation authority, cannot inspire much confidence in any deals he may offer to get an agreement with our Asian partners.
Improving trade with a group of nations that represent 40 percent of the world's economic output makes eminent sense.
So does upholding a century-old American policy of balancing Asian powers so that no one nation can dominate the continent.
But it will take more than this visit to achieve those important goals.
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