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Obama Raises Curtain On 4-Country East Asia Trip


This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block.


And I'm Audie Cornish. President Obama has arrived in Japan on a weeklong trip that will also include stops in South Korea, Malaysia and the Philippines. Along with trade talk, President Obama will be trying to reassure leaders that the U.S. will not abandon them. That's important because China is becoming more assertive in disputes with its neighbors.

NPR's Anthony Kuhn reports on the Obama administration's efforts.

ANTHONY KUHN, BYLINE: China's growing might and its increasing willingness to use it is giving rise to two strategic concerns that the president will address on this visit. The first is Japan's concern that the U.S. will fail to back its ally in order to avoid being drawn into a confrontation with China. Kunihiko Miyake is a former diplomat and director of research at the Canon Institute of Global Studies in Tokyo. He says that this concern has become more acute as China has sent more warships to patrol the disputed Senkaku Islands which China calls the Diaoyus.

KUNIHIKO MIYAKE: I think for the first time since 1945 the ordinary people found, finally in a sense, that they are having potentially a physical threat in the southern parts of Japan.

KUHN: Miyake adds that some Japanese feel that the U.S. already has its hands full with other conflicts as in Ukraine and Syria.

MIYAKE: And especially now the sequestration is going on in the United States and the U.S. military is shrinking and you have more troubles in Europe and the Middle East. So will the United States really help Japan in the case of, for example, any showdown between Japan and China over the islands in the south?

KUHN: The second concern is that the U.S. will be drawn into a conflict with China. China argues that the U.S. should not let the tail wag the dog; that is, let smaller countries disputes with China become problems between Beijing and Washington. Yuan Peng is an expert on the U.S. at the China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations, a government think tank in Beijing. He argues that the U.S. needs to base its Asia policy on relations with the region's main power, China, and not on a collection of Cold War era alliances aimed at containing China, something which Washington admits is impossible anyway.

YUAN PENG: (Through interpreter) We need to first decide on guidelines and frameworks for U.S. and Chinese behavior. Then, we need to constrain and manage America's allies so that they serve and obey the larger framework of U.S.-China relations.

KUHN: So what'll it be, asks Yuan Peng. Will the U.S. treat China as a partner and work with it to keep the peace in Asia?

PENG: (Through interpreter) Or will it treat China as a rival, strengthening its alliance with Japan in order to constrain China? That's the strategic choice the U.S. faces. Unfortunately, it appears that the U.S. is responding to China's rise by beefing up its alliance with Japan.

KUHN: But Jeffrey Bader, a former national security council Asia expert during President Obama's first term, says that the U.S. will not be dragged into a conflict between China and its neighbors and it will not write blank checks to U.S. allies, allowing them to provoke China.

JEFFREY BADER: We don't do that. We talk to the Japanese and the Filipinos very candidly both about our commitments under our alliance and about what would be discreet and proper behavior.

KUHN: On the other hand, says Bader, who is now with the Brookings Institution, while China might like to see the U.S. military alliances wind up in the dustbin of history, that's not going to happen.

BADER: I see no contradiction between having strong alliances and having a sound and constructive relationship with China. There are going to be tensions and frictions between these two objectives, but that doesn't mean that you can throw one overboard in favor of the other. You have to have both.

KUHN: On trips to Asia ahead of the president, Secretary of State John Kerry and Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel have already done the heavy lifting of reassuring U.S. allies and taking some heat from Beijing in response. In comments published today in Japan's Yomiuri Shimbun newspaper, President Obama said that the U.S.'s defense treaty with Japan covers the Senkaku Islands and that the U.S. opposes any efforts to resolve the dispute by force. He didn't mention Washington's standard line, which is that the U.S. takes no sides in the territorial dispute.

Anthony Kuhn, NPR News, Seoul. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Anthony Kuhn is NPR's correspondent based in Seoul, South Korea, reporting on the Korean Peninsula, Japan, and the great diversity of Asia's countries and cultures. Before moving to Seoul in 2018, he traveled to the region to cover major stories including the North Korean nuclear crisis and the Fukushima earthquake and nuclear disaster.