President Barack Obama left Tuesday on a trip to Japan, South Korea, Malaysia and the Philippines in pursuit of his so-called pivot to Asia.
The “pivot” announced in 2012, which implies a shift in foreign policy concentration away from the Middle East and South Asia, has since been re-tagged a “rebalance” of U.S. policy. The reality of the change has also been revised, first, by the continued siren call of the Middle East, in talks between the Israelis and Palestinians and between the Iranians and other countries over Iran’s nuclear program and, second, by the showdown between Russia and Ukraine.
Even without the distractions there is no reason to think Mr. Obama’s talks with his Asian interlocutors will be trouble-free.
First, he will be trying to sell his Trans-Pacific Partnership to his hosts. The TPP is a 12-country trade agreement intended to try to fence off China, whose economic dominance of the region increases and to some extent alarms other countries of the region. The problems of the TPP include reluctance by Asian neighbors to annoy the Chinese, and their knowledge of the difficulty Mr. Obama will have in selling the TPP to Congress.
Individual countries are also beset by problems. Japan and South Korea continue to scrap over remnants of World War II — whether Japan should apologize for using Koreans as “comfort women” and whether Japanese leaders should be allowed to visit the Yasukuni Shrine, whose honorees include convicted war criminals. Malaysia is still trying to recover from the loss of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 and its inadequate response to the tragedy. The Philippines wants to wrest control of the Scarborough Shoal, a rocky outcrop in the South China Sea, from China. North Korea is believed to be planning another nuclear test while Mr. Obama is in the neighborhood.
Meanwhile, China reminded America of its importance to U.S. business by announcing the purchase by Shandong Airlines of 50 Boeing 737s for $4.6 billion. Mr. Obama will likely find his Asian pivot a complicated row to hoe.