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POLITICS: Big Breakthroughs May Elude Obama’s Asia Trip

Eli Clifton

WASHINGTON, Nov 10 2009 (IPS) - U.S. President Barack Obama arrives in Tokyo Thursday for the first stop of his four-nation trip to Asia, but an ongoing disagreement over realignment of U.S. forces in Japan, new roadblocks to a free trade agreement (FTA) with South Korea, and continuing tussles over climate change, trade and currency issues with China have led the White House to downplay goals for the northeast Asian legs of the trip.

When Obama lands in Tokyo and meets with new Japanese Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama, one of the top issues for discussion will likely be the new government’s stance on realigning U.S. forces based on the southern island of Okinawa.

Okinawa is home to two-thirds of the 47,000 U.S. military personnel based in Japan, but relations between Okinawans and the U.S. military have declined since 1996 when three U.S. servicemen were convicted in the rape of a 12-year old girl.

An estimated 21,000 protesters gathered on Sunday in Nago City in Okinawa to call on U.S. forces to leave and support Hatoyama’s Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) in reopening bilateral agreements with the U.S. on troop realignment. Still, experts here in Washington suggest it is unlikely that the issue will be resolved in Obama’s upcoming trip.

“I think there’s an agreement not to try and solve this on this trip,” Richard Bush, director of the Center for Northeast Asian Policy Studies at the Brookings Institution, told IPS.

“I think the important thing is [for Obama] not to force the issue in what is an early time in the [DPJ’s] administration. The DPJ government took office on the 16th of September, less than two months ago, and have never governed before,” he said.

“Public support for the [U.S.-Japan] alliance remains strong and so it’s not as if we’re sailing into gale force winds of opposition from the Japanese public,” Bush continued. “This environment of public approval for the alliance makes it more likely that something can be worked out.”

In the South Korean leg of the trip, expectations are low that Obama will make substantive progress on a U.S.-South Korean free trade agreement, which Seoul has been touting as an important component to the U.S.-South Korean relationship.

U.S. access to South Korean automobile markets has emerged as the key sticking point in negotiations with Seoul.

“We want to ensure that the FTA does provide adequate access for U.S. automobiles to the Korean market. But the timing of when this can be done and what is politically feasible in the very political context surrounding trade that we deal with, that’s a question above my pay grade,” Jeffrey Bader, senior director for East Asian affairs for the National Security Council, said Friday.

The stop in Seoul will also certainly include discussion of North Korea, the future of the Six-Party Talks, and the White House’s announcement today that a small interagency team would visit Pyongyang – likely before the end of the year – to jumpstart stalled denuclearisation talks.

While the contentious issues of military basing and the FTA will likely prevent meaningful deliverables emerging from negotiations in Japan and South Korea, Obama will attempt to compensate with public appearances including news conferences in Beijing, Tokyo and Seoul, a speech on U.S.-Asian engagement in Tokyo, and a town-hall event with young people in Shanghai.

Indeed, U.S.-ties with Seoul and Tokyo have been strong on Afghanistan, with Japan pledging five billion dollars in Afghan aid Tuesday. South Korea has also committed to send a provincial reconstruction team to Afghanistan and to provide military security for that team. Despite the current disagreements on U.S. basing in Okinawa and the U.S-South Korean FTA, the visits to Tokyo and Seoul will be an opportunity for Obama to reaffirm the longstanding relationships between the U.S. and its closest allies in northeast Asia.

The four-day visit to China will require a different type of diplomacy as Obama seeks to find new areas for U.S.-Chinese cooperation, especially in the light of the recent global financial crisis.

While the White House has attempted to coax China to consume more domestically and allow its currency to strengthen, it seems unlikely that Washington will push Beijing – currently the biggest U.S. creditor – for serious concession during the visit.

But in an interview with Reuters, Obama did say, “Currency, along with a host of other issues, will come up,” during his trip to China and in talks with Chinese President Hu Jintao.

Among those issues will certainly be climate change, where the U.S. and China – two of the world’s largest carbon emitters – will need to cooperate in order to bring about a meaningful global climate change agreement in Copenhagen in December.

The trip to China will allow Obama and his team to gain exposure to the myriad of voices in Shanghai and Beijing who represent both the current and future Chinese leadership.

“China is in the midst of a significant political transition, and President Obama should make sure to stop by for a chat with the next generation of Chinese leaders – Li Keqiang, Li Yuanchao, and Xi Jinping,” wrote the Council on Foreign Relations’ director of Asian Studies, Elizabeth C. Economy. “In just two-and-half years, they will be the ones President Obama faces across the dinner table.”

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