Obama embarks on Asia tour with eye on rising China, fast-growing markets

Police officers check a vehicles at a checkpoint near the U.S. Embassy in Tokyo, the day before  President Obama arrives April 22, 2014. Getty Images

TOKYO -- President Barack Obama's travels through Asia in coming days aim to reassure partners about the renewed U.S. commitment to the region, with an eye both to China's rising assertiveness and the fast-growing markets that are the center of gravity for global growth.

The question: Will it be enough?

Nearly seven months after he cancelled an Asian tour due to the U.S. government shutdown, Obama's failure to prevent Russia from annexing Crimea has sharpened concerns that America lacks the will or wherewithal to follow through on its much-touted "pivot" to the Asia-Pacific.

"Words come easy," said Philippine political analyst Ramon Casiple. "But U.S. allies would want to know what help they can get when things reach a point of no return."

The United States has been stepping up regional military deployments, but has made less progress on rebalancing through broader diplomatic and economic initiatives, such as the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a Pacific Rim free trade agreement.

Obama arrives in Tokyo on Wednesday for the first state visit to America's closest ally in Asia by a U.S. president since Bill and Hillary Clinton came in 1996. He will be the first sitting U.S. president to visit Malaysia since Lyndon Johnson in 1966. Allies South Korea and the Philippines, the two other stops on his agenda, are also keen to shore up security ties.

U.S. allies wonder if America has adequate capability to back them up in territorial rifts with China, Caspile says, given Washington's budget problems and preoccupation with crises elsewhere.

"The American objective is to reassure countries that ... America is here to stay and is going to keep a strong interest in dealing with China together with those countries," said Koichi Nakano, a political science professor at Tokyo's Sophia University.

A report released last week by the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee urged that more effort and money be devoted to upgrading alliances in the Asia-Pacific. "A successful rebalance must underscore the strategic message that the policy represents an enduring U.S. commitment to the region, assuring our partners that we are in it for the long haul," it said.

Striving to allay Japan's worries over its territorial dispute with China and missile launches by North Korea, during a recent Asian tour U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel pledged two more ballistic missile defense destroyers for Japan by 2017. In a further show of solidarity, Hagel rebuked Beijing for escalating its territorial dispute with Tokyo over Japanese-controlled islands in the East China Sea that Japan calls the Senkaku islands and China calls the Diaoyu islands.

The U.S. is obligated to protect Japan from attack, but has sought to avoid taking a stand on sovereignty over the islands. Tokyo is hoping for more in the way of confidence building, says Hitoshi Tanaka, chairman of the Institute for International Strategy in Tokyo.

"We would like to see the president make a strong, clear statement about the Senkaku," said Tanaka. "There is a need for Japan and the U.S. to work to improve the security situation in East Asia."

Obama's two-night stay in Tokyo - just enough for the state visit the Japanese had pushed for - in itself sends a good message, said Matake Kamiya, a professor at the National Defense Academy in Yokosuka, near Tokyo.

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