Obama Makes a Real Move Toward ‘Pacific Rebalancing’

U.S. President Barack Obama speaks to U.S. and Filipino troops at the Fort Bonifacio Gymnasium in Manila on April 29, 2014. Al Falcon/Reuters

In an otherwise disappointing late-April trip to Asia, President Barack Obama scored big in the Philippines, signing an agreement designed to boost America’s military presence in an increasingly restless Asian region—and perhaps breathing life into Washington’s “Pacific rebalancing,” a policy shift that to date has mostly been rhetorical.

American and Filipino officials were still polishing the complex deal, which took eight months to complete, just hours before Obama landed in Manila, his last stop in a four-nation Asian swing. The Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA) authorizes “access to agreed locations in the territory of the Philippines by United States forces on a rotational basis, as mutually determined by the parties.”

Will a renewed U.S. military presence—and Obama’s reassuring statements in Japan, South Korea, Malaysia and the Philippines—be enough to allay fears among America’s East Asian allies? Many of them have doubted America’s willingness to protect them, even as China flexes its military muscle across the region and as an increasingly unpredictable North Korea beefs up its arsenal.

The Philippines, which once hosted the largest U.S. naval base outside America, in Subic Bay, and the largest U.S. aerial fleet abroad, at Clark Air Force base, terminated the leases for the American facilities in 1991. A return of U.S. troops now, even on a “rotational basis,” may calm some raw nerves, officials in the region say.

China recently announced several “air defense identification zones” over areas it disputes with neighbors. People’s Liberation Army naval craft have attacked disputed island chains as well. And, in an attempt to counterbalance American joint military exercises with its allies, Beijing announced recently that it intends to conduct joint naval drills with Russian forces in late May, deepening the military cooperation between the two countries.

A diplomat from an American-allied Asian country, who often travels to China, told me recently about a generational shift in Beijing. Young, up-and-coming officials are pushing the older guard to add a serious and, when needed, aggressive military dimension to the country’s economic prowess, he said.

Meanwhile, as Washington officials are quick to note, America’s agreement with the Philippines is not yet detailed enough to start scheduling, say, the first docking of an American aircraft carrier at Subic Bay. “None of these details were even discussed. It took eight months to get this agreement signed,” said Lt. Col. Jeffrey Pool, a Pentagon spokesman.

The EDCA, as the agreement is widely known, was carefully written to placate some anti-U.S. sentiment in the Philippines, which for decades has maintained a love-hate relationship with America, hosting the U.S. military during the Vietnam War but kicking it out when anti-Americanism swept the archipelago. Even during Obama’s visit, effigies of him and President Benigno Aquino III were lit by left-wingers protesting the proposed U.S. military presence.

But American troops bought themselves much good will when they helped the Filipino authorities deal with the aftermath of the deadly Typhoon Haiyan in November 2013. And as Pentagon officials say, part of the mission of the American rotating troops will be to further assist countries in the region deal with future natural disasters.

Still, the EDCA is largely seen as an American buffer against growing Chinese and North Korean military ambitions, and as part of the “pivot” to Asia, or Pacific rebalancing, that would shift America’s naval global presence, now divided evenly between the Pacific and the Atlantic oceans. In the new paradigm, 60 percent of U.S. Navy assets would move to the Pacific by 2020.

As Pentagon budgets shrink under budget cuts and sequesters, critics fear this goal may be achieved by significant cuts to the U.S. presence in the Atlantic—and leaving it as is in the Pacific. To allay such concerns, and doubts over America’s willingness to confront aggression, Obama made a point at each stop in his Asia swing to reassure his hosts that he has their backs.

In Tokyo, the president maintained neutrality on competing sovereignty claims over disputed territories, such as the uninhabited Senkaku Islands (known as the Diaoyu Islands in China). But Obama pointedly said that under a mutual defense treaty, America is obliged to defend the Japanese-administered Senkaku Islands.

The message reverberated across the region and was well received in Japan and in South Korea and the Philippines, which also have defense treaties with the U.S.

Obama did disappoint Tokyo and others when disputes over meat and automobiles prevented the completion of the much-discussed Trans-Pacific Partnership, a multinational pact designed to revolutionize trade in the region.

But mostly, Japanese officials had been concerned about America’s war fatigue. The president’s failure to act militarily when his Syrian “red line” was crossed, and with Russia continuing to eat away at Ukraine’s territory, has raised questions about his willingness to face China if its aggression turns into military confrontation. In light of this, his statement about defending the Senkaku Islands was well received.

Despite recent reports about Tokyo’s willingness to spend additional funds to bolster its own defenses, Japan’s military is years away from matching China’s. It is not clear whether it can defend itself against North Korea. The country has raised consumption taxes, but nondefense costs keep climbing, a Japanese official told me, adding that Japan will, for years to come, rely on the U.S. military to keep it safe.

In Malaysia, which unlike Obama’s other destinations in Asia has no formal defense treaty with America, there were cheers at the prospect of America’s military return to the South China Sea. As Obama landed in Kuala Lumpur to news that the EDCA was ready for signing, Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak said approvingly that he “welcome[d] Americas rebalancing towards Asia.”

Others cheered too, said Malaysian journalist Frank Alias, “especially in Sabah, a Malaysian state in Borneo, where many have expressed genuine hope that having the U.S. military nearby could help in countering pirate attacks and terrorism that plague the seas between the Southern Philippines and Sabah.”

Others in the region worry, however, that the agreement with the Philippines may suit missions like fighting terrorists and pirates and help the region cope with natural disasters, but would perhaps not be enough to address the regional power shifts. “The strategic flash points are not in the South China Sea,” said a senior South Korean official. What scares him most, he said, “is the dispute between China and Japan over the Senkaku Islands, and, of course, North Korea.”

Beyond U.S. troops and air and naval assets that will eventually rotate in and out of Filipino-owned bases in the archipelago, America may need to further beef up its presence in Okinawa and elsewhere in Japan, where the U.S. owns the bases outright.

And as Asian allies continue to worry about America’s ability and motivation to defend them, Obama was careful to reassure Beijing as well. Our goal is not to counter China. Our goal is not to contain China, he said.

Follow Benny Avni on Twitter: @bennyavni