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President Obama’s Pirouettes in Asia

Did Japan, Korea et al. see any signs of U.S. President Obama’s Asia “pivot” in his recent trip?

Credit: Anton Balazh -


  • A “pivot” to Asia, which the Obama Administration still pursues, implies strategic thrust and a sense of direction.
  • What was visible in Asia during the Obama visit is better described as “pirouettes” than a "pivot"
  • With Obama’s inherent elegance, his visit to Asia resembled that of a royal prince to his former colonies.
  • China, the US’s WWII ally, became archenemy when it fell to communism. Japan, erstwhile archenemy, became an ally.

Seven months ago, in October 2013 amid the U.S. government shutdown, President Obama decided to cancel his then-planned trips to Asia. Now the recent trip to Japan, South Korea, Malaysia and the Philippines has taken place. What is most remarkable is the degree to which it ended up being a non-event.

In many ways, with all the pleasantries exchanged and Mr. Obama’s inherent elegance, it resembled more the visit of royalty to his former colonies than the visit of a sitting U.S. President.

Describing what occurred as underscoring a “pivot” to Asia, as the Obama Administration is still eager to do, would imply some sort of strategic thrust and sense of direction. However, both of them were conspicuous by their absence. Describing the maneuver as performing “pirouettes” would seem more appropriate.

There was very little coverage by the international press. Of course, this is partly due to the fact that there are other big events taking place on the planet right now: the breakdown in the Palestinian-Israeli negotiations and the crisis in Ukraine, to name just two.

Yet, bearing in mind the global geopolitical and economic stakes in Asia Pacific, the trip must clearly be deemed a quite alarming flop.

Let us take the trip’s destinations in reverse order.


It is in Manila, the final destination, that arguably the most concrete outcome of the pirouettes occurred, in the shape of a 10-year defense pact. The Philippines, a former American colony, just some 20 years ago ejected American troops stationed there. Now, they are being welcomed back.

President Obama was quoted as saying about the pact: “Our goal is not to counter China. Our goal is not to contain China.”

One can be forgiven for thinking that perhaps this is a case of he who protests too much actually confesses to the underlying charge. After all, China is decidedly also not among the TPP partners the U.S. side envisions.

Obama also implicitly chides China for resorting to “coercion and intimidation” vis-à-vis its neighbors. But what about the U.S. resorting to coercion and intimidation not just vis-à-vis its neighbors, but in far-away lands? Silence on that score, as you would expect.

The Chinese might also have a thing or two to say about what it feels like being the victim of coercion and intimidation in light of the country’s history of external oppression for over a century from the first Opium War (1839) to the Liberation (1949).


Before his stop in Manila, Obama was in Malaysia. Unlike the Philippines it is a negotiating member of TPP (Trans-Pacific Partnership), which is the economic arm of the pivot/pirouette, but over which issue (see below) little progress was made.

It was also a somewhat embarrassing time to be in Kuala Lumpur in light of the Malaysian government’s persecution of opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim on allegations of sodomy. Not a memorable visit on any count.

South Korea

The visit to South Korea occurred at a time of one of the country’s greatest recent tragedies with the deaths by drowning of hundreds of school pupils, and others, from the ferry disaster. It was not the proper occasion for detailed discussions; hence the subject, among others, of Korea joining TPP was set aside.

Apart from expressing his condolences, Obama also reassured Seoul that the United States would stand behind the South Koreans in case of conflict with the North. No great new development there. Having stood by the Japanese (see below) on the Diaoyu/Senkaku islands issue with China, he interestingly chose not to say anything about the Dokdo/Takeshima islands dispute between South Korea and Japan.

While both Japan and South Korea are military allies of the United States, tensions run high, thereby jeopardizing peace and stability in Northeast Asia. Obama’s various interventions may have brought the temperature down a degree or two. However, there is no solid outcome from his brief stay in Seoul on that count — or, it seems, any other.


The greatest disappointment was the visit to Tokyo. 2015 will mark the 70th anniversary of the end of the Pacific War. Within a few short years of the kamikaze attacks and the atom bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan and the United States became allies, with the U.S. in the role of Japan’s benevolent protector.

The principal reason back then? You guessed it, to contain China. The latter, of course, had been the U.S.’s World War II ally, but had in the meantime “fallen” to communism. Thusly, the ally (China) became the archenemy — and the erstwhile archenemy (Japan) became the principal ally.

As to the current territorial disputes, the Cairo declaration (1943), reaffirmed by Potsdam (1945), had made it explicitly clear that the Diaoyu (Senkaku in Japanese) islands were to be restored to China.

Even so, Obama asserted that they were covered in the U.S.-Japan Security Treaty (1952). Hence, should the Chinese choose to invade the islands, the United States would defend. A murky situation is made murkier and more perilous.

Territorial and defense matters aside, the great prize of what was heralded to be a pivotal visit from the leader of the world’s biggest economy to the world’s third-biggest was supposed to be an agreement between the two on TPP.

Finishing TPP?

Japan and the US are the two great whales in TPP, with the other ten members (Canada, Mexico, Peru, Chile, Australia, New Zealand, Vietnam, Malaysia, Singapore, and Brunei) medium or small sized fish.

An agreement between Japan and the United States is essential to concluding TPP. It should serve to entice other Asian nations, such as South Korea and Indonesia, to join — while containing China, of course.

Extremely intense negotiating between the countries’ respective trade ministers and schmoozing between President Obama and Prime Minister Abe over an outrageously expensive, sake-lubricated sushi dinner failed to achieve a breakthrough. (The main obstacle is agriculture.)

As if it had not happened

Though both sides said progress had been made – they would, wouldn’t they? – in reality, Obama left empty-handed.

Thus, the Obama trip – which after its earlier cancellation – has now happened; but it leaves the world pretty much in the same place as if it had not happened.

There is no greater clarity emerging from the trip for global trade policy. Nor is it clear that, for all the careful stage management and the mellifluous words being uttered, the issue of the U.S.’ commitment to the Asia Pacific region, its reliability, or more generally its global credibility, has been clarified.

And the Chinese? They are probably sorting out whether the Obama trip leaves them more contained — or less contained.

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About Jean-Pierre Lehmann

Jean-Pierre Lehmann (1946-2017) was emeritus professor of international political economy at IMD in Lausanne, Switzerland, and a Contributing Editor at The Globalist. [Switzerland]

Responses to “President Obama’s Pirouettes in Asia”

Archived Comments.

  1. On May 2, 2014 at 7:57 am rod260 responded with... #

    This is an astonishing piece,far below the quality that has kept me reading the Globalist for many years. It comes close to being a piece of pro-China propaganda. Let’s start with the title: “pirouettes”? President Obama recognizes that the peaceful integration of China into the world trading community is the essential task of the 21st century, just as the integration of Germany was the task of the 20th century. He is dealing with a corrupt dictatorship that appears to have designs on the island territories of virtually all its neighbors.About the Senkakus, Professor Lehmann is factually wrong. They were not mentioned in the Cairo Declaration. They were labeled as Japanese territory on PRC maps until the early 1970s. Before President Xi came power, he visited Japan and stated publicly that the Japanese had made great contributions to world peace since WWII. (He did not, of course, mention that they are a functioning democracy—something that Professor Lehmann does not deign to mention either.) The “9-dash line” in the South China Sea contravenes the international regime of the Law of the Sea, and has never been defined by the Chinese. The US has devoted enormous diplomatic resources during the Obama Administration to trying without success to communicate with the Chinese on these issues. It is very difficult to communicate with a government that will not say in concrete terms what it wants and what supports in international law or practice what it it wants. China conducts its international relations pretty much by the usual standards elsewhere in the world, but in East and South Asia, it appears to think international relations are still organized in terms of tribute missions.

  2. On May 3, 2014 at 3:25 am Jean-Pierre Lehmann responded with... #

    Rod, thank you for your comment. In respect to the Diaoyu, as a reader of The Globalist you should have come across the recent article by Martin Sieff, Japan Must Own Up to Past Actions – Diaoyu Islands: China’s posture reflects Japan’s failure to show contrition for the past., in which is written:
    “Reflecting the long and terrible suffering of the Chinese people in that conflict, the Cairo Declaration pledged to put unrelenting military pressure on Japan until it agreed to unconditional surrender.
    It insisted that Japan be stripped of all the islands it had seized or occupied in the Pacific Ocean since the beginning of World War I in 1914. And it made it very clear that all the territories Japan had seized from China in nearly half a decade of aggression since 1895 should be restored to China.
    When Japan surrendered to the Allied powers on September 2, 1945, it specifically accepted the terms of the Potsdam Proclamation of July 26, 1945, which incorporated by reference the terms of the Cairo Declaration. Under the terms of the Cairo Declaration and the Potsdam Proclamation, sovereignty of the Diaoyu Islands was returned to China.”
    So I am not, as you claim, “factually wrong”.
    You also write that President Obama recognises that the peaceful integration of China into the world trading community is the essential task of the 21st century; if so, TPP, which excludes China, sure is a strange way of going about it. But that is a matter of opinion and you are of coure fully entitled to your opinions on that and other issues that you address.

  3. On May 5, 2014 at 5:56 am rod260 responded with... #

    As for the supposed inclusion of the Senkakus in the Cairo Declaration, your piece seems to say that they are mentioned by name in the Cairo Declaration, and they are not. The key question as to whether they were included by reference is whether they were included in the territories taken from China by the Treaty of Shimonoseki. And they were not. They had been made apart of Japanese territory a few months before the treaty. This sounds like a quibble, but a Japanese entrepreneur had had a small bonito flake and feather gathering there for some ten years before the First Sino-Japanese War with no interference from the Chinese authorities. Private occupation does not convey sovereignty under international law, so the Japanese businessman had been seeking his government’s official blessing of his actions and conformation of his property rights during these years, But the Japanese government deferred, anxious not to cause undue friction with the Chinese (at the time, the Chinese had a larger and more modern fleet than the Japanese). In negotiations under American mediation in the 1880s, the Japanese offered the Chinese half of the Ryukyus (despite the fact that the Okinawans are clearly ethnically Japanese). The Chinese refused, holding out for the entire group of islands.) After WWII, the Chinese, both in Taiwan and Beijing, at first accepted the Japanese sovereignty over the Senkakus, and commenced their agitation only when ECAFE issued a report in 1968 saying that there were extensive petroleum reserves under the Senkakus waters (most knowledgable observers believe that any reserves are uncommercialy viable gas esources). The current US position is that we do not recognize the right of China to change the existing Japanese administration of the Senkakus. The Chinese should take their case to the ICJ, where Japan is under compulsory jurisdiction.
    The good news is that the Chinese, faced with some real problems in their economic growth program and noting a dramatic fall in Japanese direct investment in China, seemed to have dampened down their patrols in the Senkakus—if not their rhetoric.
    My favorable mentions of the Obama Administration’s efforts vis-a-vis China had to do with their efforts to calm the Chinese down on their maritime aggression. I doubt whether the Chinese are interested in the TPP. Let them behave better with regard to the WTO rules before they given full membership in the liberal trading camp.

  4. On May 5, 2014 at 9:02 am Jean-Pierre Lehmann responded with... #

    Rod, let us agree to disagree!

  5. On May 5, 2014 at 9:32 pm H. H. GAFFNEY responded with... #

    Professor Lehmann should do more than carp — he should tell us what he, personally, really thinks ought to be done. Remember, the U.S. has no “aid money” or “free military assistance program” to provide lots of stuff to the Philippines to bolster their defenses. But then again, he may not have noticed that, aside from the Marshall Plan and aside from the massive budgets for the U.S. military (which for Congress is really a domestic economy stimulus program), the U.S. has run its foreign affairs (not just something called “policy”) and aid programs on an utter shoestring for the 52 years I’ve been deeply involved in .U.S. foreign policy and defense. I will await what Professor Lehmann really wants the U.S. to do rather than making snide remarks.