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Vol. 73/No. 47      December 7, 2009

Obama Asia trip shows no
clear foreign policy course
(front page)
U.S. president Barack Obama’s November 12-19 tour to Japan, Singapore, China, and South Korea highlighted Washington’s growing challenges in East Asia and the White House’s lack of a clear foreign policy course.

Little was accomplished on important policy issues from Washington’s campaign against North Korea and Iran to sharpening trade tensions. In South Korea, Obama’s final stop, he got the strongest backing for increasing pressure on North Korea regarding its nuclear program. There he vowed to “break from the pattern that has existed in the past” of back and forth negotiations without “progress on the core issues.”

A week earlier the administration announced it would dispatch U.S. envoy Stephen Bosworth to Pyongyang, the North Korean capital, December 8 to urge the North Korean government to return to negotiations on disarmament with the United States, China, Japan, Russia, and South Korea, known as the six-party talks.

However, unlike under the previous two U.S. administrations, any agreement by North Korea to return to talks will not be reciprocated with food aid, a senior administration official traveling with Obama told the Washington Post.

The country’s food crisis is expected to worsen. Earlier this year Washington suspended 500,000 tons of food aid agreed to under the administration of George W. Bush. Similarly, South Korean president Lee Myung-bak ended a decade of large-scale food and fertilizer aid to the north after winning the presidency in 2007.

In a joint Japan-U.S. statement issued during the tour, Obama and Japanese prime minister Yukio Hatoyama urged Pyongyang to return to the six party negotiations without preconditions.

Chinese president Hu Jintao took a more muted stance, voicing support for continued negotiations to further the “denuclearization process of the Korean Peninsula.” How Beijing will respond to Washington’s plan to starve Pyongyang into submission is still to be seen. But in August, the Chinese government took a step to make its trade with North Korea more difficult to ascertain. Beijing suddenly stopped publishing its trade figures with North Korea, which receives about a quarter million tons of food annually from China at preferential prices.

Only Tokyo expressed any, albeit mild, support for Washington’s campaign to impose sanctions against Iran. “We have to support—we would like to support the approach to Iran. On the one hand, we want to emphasize our historic relationship, but also, at the same time, I promise to strengthen our alliance vis-a-vis Iran,” said Japanese prime minister Yukio Hatoyama.

The most striking feature of the Japanese leg of the tour however, was the newly elected Democratic Party of Japan government’s more assertive tone and desire to establish what it calls a “more equal relationship” with Washington.

In a joint press conference November 13, Hatoyama referred to Japan’s alliance with Washington as the “foundation” of its foreign policy. But two days later at a meeting in Singapore he emphasized his government’s shift toward strengthening economic and diplomatic ties with countries in Asia.

The most contentious issue has been Hatoyama’s position that more than 30,000 U.S. troops should leave the Japanese island of Okinawa, and possibly the whole country. In 2006 Tokyo and Washington signed an agreement to relocate U.S. forces from the Futenma Air Base, located in a densely populated urban area, to a new base that would be constructed by 2014 in a rural coastal area of the island.

Last month U.S. secretary of defense Robert Gates said Washington would refuse to alter the 2006 pact. If Tokyo backed out of its agreement to relocate U.S. troops in Okinawa to the coast, he said, then 8,000 troops slated for redeployment in Guam would remain in Futenma and no land would be returned to Japan.

During the November 13 news conference, Obama and Hatoyama announced the setting up of a “working group” to resolve the issue. Its purpose, according to Obama, will be to “focus on implementation of the agreement” the two sides signed in 2006. White House officials followed up to make clear this meant Washington was not open to renegotiation.

Three days later Hatoyama told reporters in Tokyo that his government did not share that view. “If our review is merely aimed at making a decision confirming the agreement, its meaningless,” he said.

Everywhere Obama went the trade tensions between Washington and countries in Asia was a major theme. Obama gave lip service to open markets, while urging Asian competitors to rely less on exporting to a U.S. market.

Obama pledged to “move forward” on a stalled free trade agreement struck with South Korea in 2007. South Korean president Lee has said Seoul would agree to rediscuss automobile trade if necessary, a major issue for Washington.

In recent months Washington has launched protectionist measures against Chinese products, including tariffs on Chinese tires and steel pipes and “antidumping” probes against Chinese coated paper and phosphate salts. Chinese president Hu blasted U.S. “abusive protectionism,” while ignoring Obama’s calls for Beijing to allow its currency to appreciate. The current setup gives Chinese products a price advantage in U.S. markets.  
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