HONOLULU (July 29, 2010)—The Obama administration’s hope to build on prior presidents’ policies in Asia has faced some unexpected turns during the first 18 months of his presidency, according to two experts who assessed Asia Pacific foreign policy at the East-West Center’s recent 50th Anniversary International Conference. “It’s very different from what they would have expected,” said Victor Cha, Director of Asian Studies at Georgetown University and former Director of Asian Affairs at the National Security Council during the George W. Bush era.

Video of the discussion is available online at

Cha and Michael Green, Japan Chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and an associate professor of international relations at Georgetown, said the Obama administration came in with the idea of maintaining continuity in foreign policy in Asia, just as other recent presidents had. That included carrying on a strong relationship with Japan while continuing to reach out and engage China on issues such as climate change. There also was a hope that more direct talks with North Korea might improve relations.

But the situation Obama inherited in Asia was different than the one his predecessor faced, said Green, who also worked at the NSC during the Bush years. In Japan, former Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama came into office last September with a different view of the U.S.-Japan alliance and a pledge to re-examine a previous agreement over the future of the Futenma Marine base in Okinawa. The weakened relationship with Japan and Wall Street’s financial crisis also altered China’s view of the U.S., said Green.

China also hasn’t responded the way Washington hoped in terms of climate change policy, he said, and has been especially critical of a U.S. decision to sell arms to Taiwan this year – including rebuffing U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates’ request to visit Beijing last month. “China was much tougher than I think the administration expected,” Green said.

As for North Korea, Obama’s hopes for engagement dimmed when the country tested missiles and a nuclear bomb in the months after he took office. “They got a ballistic missile test and second nuclear bomb test, all in response to Obama extending a hand,” noted Cha. He said it is also clear North Korea was responsible for the March sinking of the Cheonan, a South Korean warship, in which 46 sailors died.

The U.S. also hasn’t been successful in restarting talks on North Korea’s nuclear program. “I don’t think we’ll see a resumption of the Six-Party talks very soon,” said Cha, who was a lead U.S. negotiator at the talks during his time at the NSC. Engagement with Burma through direct talks with the nation’s military junta also has produced little, Green said.

Moreover, U.S. domestic policy has overshadowed foreign policy, keeping Obama from making a promised trip to Indonesia, Green and Cha agreed. Obama’s popularity abroad can be a plus for U.S. foreign policy, Green said, though the president has yet to use his political capital for foreign policy in Asia.

However, the administration has had some success in the region, with Secretary of State Clinton showing good instincts there, said Green. He added that relations with Japan are improving after Hatoyama’s resignation and replacement by Naoto Kan last month.

Cha said Obama and South Korean President Lee Myung-bak have hit it off well, with a personal chemistry that has helped in the crisis over the Cheonan sinking, as well as improving hopes for American ratification of a stalled U.S.-Korea free-trade agreement. Cha said the agreement, if ratified, would represent a significant deepening of relations between the two countries, and may serve as a model for other trade accords “This is about more than just access to U.S. markets,” he said.

Last year, Obama also said the U.S. was interested in engaging in the multilateral Trans-Pacific Partnership free trade framework. “The irony of all of this is an administration that came in with a non-existent trade policy,” Cha said. “But where it may leave a lasting mark may be in trade.”


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