Pivot home: Obama returns from Asia with a mixed bag

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Now that President Barack Obama has returned from a weeklong trip to Japan, South Korea, Malaysia and the Philippines, it’s time to assess what he achieved.

He traveled there to underscore his 2-year-old “pivot to Asia” policy, part of which recognizes the growing weight of Asian countries in terms of two-way trade and investment opportunities for the United States. As part of that focus, Mr. Obama should pay most attention to U.S.-Chinese relations, given the two countries’ sales to and investments in each other and given America’s multi-trillion-dollar debt to China.

The fact that he went to four other countries, including China rivals Japan and South Korea, is an ambivalent “plus,” although Mr. Obama has been assiduous and realistic in his attention to China and its leaders. One of his objectives was to promote the 12-nation Trans-Pacific Partnership, a trade deal which would involve seven Asian and five North and South American nations. If approved by the Senate, a doubtful prospect, it would reduce tariff barriers in the participant nations. Whether it is or is not to America’s advantage depends on who agrees to what, a still-opaque calculation. Mr. Obama made no visible progress on the pact during this trip, unless private talks achieved results that will be revealed later.

The president handed out some gifts along the way, however. To Japan he pledged U.S. support in its dispute with China over some uninhabited islands in the East China Sea that China and Japan both claim. In South Korea he stood alongside a president and a government being severely criticized for the loss of a ferry boat with hundreds of passengers. In Malaysia he soothed a government that has dealt ineptly with the disappearance of Flight 370 and its 200-plus passengers. In the Philippines, Mr. Obama signed a 10-year agreement allowing for increased U.S. military equipment, training and presence there.

Whether the trip was worth it depends as much on what Mr. Obama gave away as what he received.

The U.S. guarantee of the Japanese position on the disputed islands may pose problems down the road. The wise U.S. course is right in the middle, urging negotiations by China and Japan. The value to the United States of more access to Philippine bases, as they also quarrel with the Chinese, is also dubious. And, as far as his consoling the South Koreans and Malaysians, he didn’t need to be there to do that.

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