Enjoy the sushi and hot noodles while you can, Barack – the Chinese will remain cold

For two of the countries on his itinerary, the timing is especially poor

 

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Pleasing to the eye and the palate, the sculpted sushi savoured by Barack Obama in a tiny Tokyo eatery last night belied the muddle of diplomatic and military sensitivities on  the menu for the rest of his four-nation  Asia tour. Get ready for tangles of noodles and hot spice, Mr President, followed by heartburn.

It was meant to be simpler than this when, three years ago, he declared that the US would start to shift its gaze away from Europe and the Middle East (and, of course, Iraq and Afghanistan) towards the Pacific. Dubbed the Asia Pivot, it was to be the main foreign policy legacy of Mr Obama when he left office. There were lots of decent reasons for it, not least the need to buffer China’s growing swagger.

So much for a good idea. Even getting Mr Obama into the region has been a nightmare. Two previous trips had to be cancelled, the last when Washington was grappling with the government shutdown. And now that he has finally made it, distractions still abound for him and his hosts. For Mr Obama, of course, it is events in Ukraine and Vladimir Putin – so much for being able to put Europe on the  back-burner.

For two of the countries on his itinerary, the timing is especially poor. After Japan he goes to South Korea, but how much attention can he really expect from President Park Geun-hye in the aftermath of last week’s ferry disaster? His next stop will be Malaysia, where a different transportation disaster – the vanishing of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 – has turned its government into a symbol of opacity and incompetence.

By far the greatest distraction however is also the primary reason for his being there in the first place. China. Every word he utters, including in his final port of call – Manila in the Philippines – will be dictated by the conflicting imperatives of reassuring his hosts that the US has their backs in case of future Chinese trade bullying or military belligerence while, at the same time, trying to offend Beijing as little as possible.

It’s a balancing act Mr Obama described even before arriving in Tokyo for his intimate dinner with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. “We welcome the continuing rise of a China that is stable, prosperous and peaceful and plays a responsible role in global affairs,” he told Japan’s Yomiuri newspaper. “Our engagement with China does not and will not come at the expense of Japan or any other ally.”

Immediately, however, Mr Obama tripped a wire backing Japan in its dispute with China over the Senkaku Islands. “We oppose any unilateral attempts to undermine Japan’s administration of these islands,” he said, declaring that they fall within a treaty obligation for the US to aid Japan in the event of attack. Beijing bristled. “The United States should respect the truth, not take any sides, be careful about its words and behaviour, and uphold peace and stability,” a spokesman for the Chinese Foreign Ministry complained.

The state Xinhua news agency was more blunt. Mr Obama’s reassurance tour in Asia, as it might be called, is “a carefully calculated scheme to cage the rapidly developing Asian giant”, it said, meaning China. “The United States should reappraise its anachronistic hegemonic alliance system and stop pampering its chums like Japan and the Philippines that have been igniting regional tensions with provocative moves.”

The Philippines’ recent trouble with China has been over another remote ocean outcrop, the Scarborough Shoal in the South China Sea. But the visit to Manila offers Mr Obama perhaps the most tangible prize of his tour, an agreement with the government to give greater access to US ships and planes to its military bases, plugging a large hole in America’s Pacific presence that opened when it was forced to surrender its sprawling Subic Bay military base in 1992.

Antagonising China this week will have its purposes, however. None of his hosts have yet to be persuaded that the Asia Pivot is anything more than just words. Where is it exactly? Meanwhile, Japan, South Korea and the Philippines wonder what concrete help they can expect if tensions boil over – for Seoul it’s more about North Korea – given Mr Obama’s virtual inaction in Syria and Ukraine.

Just as important to Mr Obama as military solidarity is finalising an ambitious 12-nation free trade zone linking Asia with North and some of South America called the Trans-Pacific Partnership, TPP. In part about economic growth, in the President’s mind it is also about applying a glue of common values to the Asia region.

But a new bilateral pact between the US and Japan must be struck first and problems abound. It could emerge before Mr Obama leaves Tokyo, but it’s unlikely. But even if it does, Mr Obama may not be able to deliver approval of the TPP because of resistance from within his own Democratic Party.

“That’s some good sushi right there,” Mr Obama declared last night. But his appetite for his ballyhooed Asia Pivot is going to be sorely tested in the days ahead. It’s a complex stew.

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