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
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 in China, was "more than
enough" for Tokyo.
The risk of Obama's rhetoric in Japan — as well as at other stops on
his journey through Asia, where several allies face maritime
disputes with China — was of antagonizing Beijing and damaging U.S.
ties with the world's second-biggest economy.
Analysts mostly agreed that Obama got the balance right by assuring
America's friends of U.S. security assistance while insisting that
Washington was not trying to contain China.
China called on the United States and Japan to abandon their "Cold
War mentality" but was mostly muted about rest of the trip, although
some experts cautioned Beijing's response might only become clear in
the coming weeks or months.
Shi Yinhong, director of the Center for American Studies at Renmin
University in Beijing, said the Obama administration probably felt
its message of deterrence to China and reassurance to Japan and
other allies was delivered successfully.
"But if we want to know if the trip seriously harmed U.S.-China
relations and damaged to the United States' strategic and economic
interests, we can only draw a question mark," Shi said.
Near the end of the trip, one Chinese official implied that
American's interest in the region could be fleeting, as even some
allies fear, while Beijing's engagement would be constant.
"If you come or do not come, we will be here," said Chinese foreign
ministry spokesman Qin Gang.
FOREIGN POLICY CRITICISM
Obama's first Asia trip of his second term also comes at a time when
his broader foreign policy record is facing criticism, including
over his response to the Syrian civil war and a faltering
Israeli-Palestinian peace effort.
Skeptics among the United States' friends in the region fear the
faltering "pivot", meant to refocus America's attention on the
dynamic economies of the Pacific Rim, could be undone by the
competing pull of events in Europe and the Middle East.
[to top of second column]
It could hardly have been lost on Obama's hosts that he was often
pulled off-script to focus on the crisis in Ukraine.
The issue figured prominently in all four news conferences he gave
in the region, and he also used the time to rally European leaders
behind a new round of sanctions against Russia.
But seeking to
dispel any doubts about Washington's staying power in Asia, Obama
told a news conference in Manila on Monday:
"Our alliances in the Asia Pacific have never been stronger; I can
say that unequivocally."
NO NEW IDEAS
In South Korea, Obama offered poignant words of condolence over the
scores killed in an April 16 ferry disaster and also expressed
solidarity over Seoul's troubles with Pyongyang, but had no new
ideas for curbing North Korea's nuclear ambitions.
"U.S. cannot exert leadership in Asia only with words," read the
headline of an editorial in South Korea's Chosun Ilbo newspaper.
"The summit talks between Korea and the U.S. was no more than
symbolic," the Hankook Ilbo newspaper said.
There was also an awkward moment during a news conference with
President Park Geun-hye when an American TV reporter asked jokingly
whether Obama would save Russian President Vladimir Putin if he saw
It was meant as a light-hearted rejoinder to a similar question put
to Putin on Russian TV earlier in the month — Obama followed his
Kremlin counterpart in saying he would — but drew sharp criticism
from South Korean media who saw it as inappropriate in a country
mourning hundreds lost on the ferry.
In Manila, Obama hailed one of the few tangible achievements of the
trip — the signing of a 10-year military pact with the Philippines
that opens the way for U.S. troops, planes and warships to have
greater access to bases in the Philippines.
While significantly bolstering the security component of the pivot
strategy, the deal, which faced significant political opposition in
the former U.S. colony, may be less than meets the eye.
It is more of a legal framework, does not specify how many assets
will be permitted on a "rotational basis" and requires decisions on
deployments on a mission-by-mission basis, U.S. officials said.
Despite that, Obama appears to have won credit in Southeast Asia,
where he also visited Malaysia, for undertaking what was essentially
a make-up for a visit he canceled last fall because of a government
"This is a part of the world where showing up and giving high-level
attention makes a difference," a senior U.S. official said.
(Additional reporting by Linda Sieg in Tokyo, Ben Blanchard in
Beijing, Narae Kim in Seoul, Rosemarie Francisco in Manila and
Krista Hughes in Washington)
[© 2014 Thomson Reuters. All rights
Copyright 2014 Reuters. All rights reserved. This material may not be published,
broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.