The flyover was a vivid illustration of the expanding significance
of one of Asia's most strategic regions and underscored a message
that senior U.S. officials say President Barack Obama will make in
Asia next week: The "pivot" of U.S. military and diplomatic assets
toward the Asia-Pacific region is real.
Washington's Asian allies, however, appear unconvinced.
During Obama's four-nation tour of Asia that begins on April 23, his
toughest challenge will be to reassure skeptical leaders that the
United States intends to be more than just a casual observer and
instead is genuinely committed to countering an increasingly
assertive China in the region.
Russia's annexation of Ukraine's Crimea peninsula — and perceptions
of limited U.S. options to get Moscow to back down — has heightened
unease in Japan, the Philippines and elsewhere about whether Beijing
might feel emboldened to use force to pursue its territorial claims
in the East and South China Seas.
There is also suspicion among some Asian allies that if they come
under threat from China, the United States — despite treaty
obligations to come to their aid — might craft a response aimed more
at controlling damage to its own vital relationship with China, the
world's second-biggest economic power.
For Obama, the tricky part of the trip, which will include stops in
Japan, South Korea, Malaysia and the Philippines, will be deciding
how to set limits on China in a way that soothes U.S. allies in Asia
but avoids stoking tensions with Beijing.
"Obama's upcoming visit will be the most critical test of this
administration's Asia policy," said Richard Jacobson, a Manila-based
analyst with TD International, a business risk and strategic
U.S. officials say the Obama administration's long-promised
"rebalancing" of America's economic, diplomatic and security policy
toward Asia is on track, largely unaffected by the attention
demanded by the crisis in Ukraine or persistent troubles in the
The Asia "pivot" — as the White House initially dubbed it — represented a strategy to refocus on the region's dynamic economies
as the United States disentangled itself from costly wars in Iraq
But doubts about Washington's commitment to Asia are simmering in
some allied capitals.
"It was a welcome policy change, but will they do it?" Yukio
Okamoto, a former Japanese government adviser on foreign affairs
said of the strategic shift toward Asia that Obama announced in
2011. "We do not see any actual sign" of its implementation.
When Obama announced the eastward shift, the most dramatic symbol of
the new policy was the planned deployment of 2,500 U.S. Marines in
northern Australia, where they would be primed to respond to
regional conflicts. It took until this month to build up forces to
1,150 Marines based in Darwin, and the full contingent is not due to
be in place until 2017.
"The U.S. pivot towards Asia has had very few tangible, concrete
outcomes so far," said Adam Lockyer, a foreign policy and defense
analyst at the University of New South Wales.
A SIGN OF ANXIETY
Obama will try to put those concerns to rest while in Manila, where
Philippine officials say he is expected to sign a security pact that
will allow for increased use of Philippine bases by U.S. ships,
aircraft and troops.
Manila's acceptance of a beefed-up U.S. military presence, a
politically sensitive issue in the independent-minded archipelago
nation, would reveal the scale of Philippine anxiety over China.
The Philippine Senate voted to evict the U.S. military from their
bases in 1991, ending 94 years of American military presence in the
Philippines, and has only gradually allowed the return of U.S.
forces for limited operations during the past decade.
The Philippine government is struggling to keep control of Second
Thomas Shoal, where it has a military outpost on a reef surrounded
by Chinese coastguard ships. The outpost itself is a huge, rusting
World War Two transport vessel that the Philippine navy
intentionally ran aground in 1999 to mark its claim.
Eight or so Filipino soldiers live there for three months at a time
in harsh conditions on a reef that Manila says is within its
200-nautical mile exclusive economic zone. China, which claims 90
percent of the South China Sea, says the shoal is part of its
Last month, a U.S. surveillance plane was spotted overhead as a
Philippine vessel dodged Chinese coastguard vessels to deliver
supplies and fresh troops to the outpost.
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Such U.S. aircraft normally conduct their missions at higher
altitudes, so the fact that its flyover was in full view of
journalists monitoring the incident on the surface below suggested
that the United States wanted to make its presence known. A Chinese
plane and a Philippine military aircraft also flew above the area at
The administration has promised that the
United States will reposition naval forces so that 60 percent of its
warships are based in Asia-Pacific by the end of the decade, up from
about 50 percent now. But as the U.S. military budget contracts,
that likely would represent part of a shrinking U.S. defense pie.
Obama's aides brush aside complaints about the U.S. follow-through
on the pivot strategy, saying that no matter how much attention
Washington devotes to friends and partners in the region, the allies
will always want more from their superpower friend.
"Questions by Asia-Pacific allies about the degree of American
commitment has been a constant component of our relationship for
60-plus years. It's not new," said a senior U.S. official, who asked
not to be identified because he was not authorized to comment
publicly. "It doesn't mean the U.S. won't do more to work with
MAKING UP FOR OBAMA'S NO-SHOW
Obama himself helped to fuel some of the skepticism about the United
States' commitment to Asia when he abruptly canceled a long-planned
trip to Asia to attend two regional summits last fall and stayed
home to deal with a U.S. government shutdown.
Since then, negotiations have dragged on over a proposed U.S.-led
trans-Pacific trade pact that is widely seen as the economic
centerpiece of Obama's pivot strategy.
In this tense regional climate, Obama can be expected to appeal
directly to Asian leaders to have faith in America's resolve to keep
China in check and discourage any notion that Beijing could emulate
Russia's takeover of Crimea by seizing contested islands and shoals
from its neighbors.
"Among countries in Asia, there has been an increase in the level of
anxiety about what lessons China may be drawing from Russia and
Ukraine," the senior U.S. official said.
While sticking to a U.S. refusal to take sides in the maritime
disputes, Obama will seek to reassure South Korea, Japan and the
Philippines that Washington is "fully committed to our defense
treaties" with them, the official said.
Obama's Japanese hosts likely will only be satisfied if the
president takes a tough stand against China and in solidarity with
Japan amid growing concern that Washington's defense commitment may
Tokyo and Beijing are locked in a bitter row in the East China Sea
over tiny, uninhabited isles administered by Japan, especially since
China announced the creation of a controversial new air defense zone
covering the area, which the Japanese call Senkaku and the Chinese
Relations between Japan and China have been further poisoned
by Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's visit to a controversial
shrine for war dead seen as a symbol of Japan's past militarism — a
move that drew U.S. criticism as well.
Obama, the U.S. official said, will send a message during his Asian
tour to China that "it should not use intimidation or coercion"
against its neighbors.
That is not likely to go down well in Beijing, where visiting U.S.
Secretary of State Chuck Hagel faced harsh accusations last week
from Chinese officials who claimed that Washington's regional agenda
was aimed at blocking China's rise.
(Additional reporting by Greg Torode in Hong Kong, Linda Sieg in
Tokyo, Matt Siegel in Sydney, David Brunnstrom and Mark Felsenthal
in Washington; editing by Jason Szep and David Lindsey)
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