WASHINGTON – It’s up to Vice President Joe Biden to show that the U.S. effort to realign its gaze toward Asia hasn’t fizzled out.
Biden is set to arrive Monday in Tokyo on a weeklong trip to Asia, which is watching carefully to see how committed the Obama administration is to increasing America’s influence in the region as a hedge against an increasingly assertive China.
In meetings with leaders in Japan, China and South Korea, the vice president will seek to show that, while the administration has been preoccupied with Mideast flare-ups and a series of domestic distractions, the U.S. remains determined to be a Pacific power.
At the same time, disputes among Asian nations seem to be threatening instability in a region that’s vital to the U.S. economy.
American allies Japan and South Korea are barely speaking. China is butting heads with its neighbors and with the U.S. about Beijing’s new air defense zone over a group of tiny islands that have exacerbated long-simmering territorial conflicts.
Early in his presidency, Barack Obama declared the U.S. was “all in” when it came to the Asia-Pacific. His administration pledged to increase its influence, resources and diplomatic outreach in the region, and to bolster the U.S. military footprint so that, by 2020, 60 percent of the Navy’s warships would be based there, compared with 50 percent now.
The concern was that, as China came into its own as a superpower, its sway over other Asian nations would grow, too. But in Obama’s second term, Iran, Syria and Egypt have absorbed the president’s attention on foreign policy matters. At home, the administration has been consumed with a health insurance rollout that’s become a major political problem, while intense gridlock in Congress has bogged Obama down in domestic disputes.
To cap it off, Obama had to scrap a much-anticipated trip to Asia in October because the federal government was shut down. His absence led many in the region to wonder if it remained an Obama priority.
Obama’s national security adviser, Susan Rice, said recently it does. She announced that Obama will visit Asia in April and promised that the U.S. will keep deepening its commitment to Asia “no matter how many hot spots emerge elsewhere.”
But Rep. Steve Chabot, R-Ohio, said he’s heard loud concerns as he’s traveled the region as the chairman of the House subcommittee dealing with Asia. “In each country, I’ve gotten this feedback: ‘When do you think the president is going to put some meat on the bones?'” Chabot said. “It’s been mostly just talk and mostly diplomatic engagement. They want to get beyond just talk.”
On his first stop, Biden will meet with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe before focusing on women’s issues with the new U.S. ambassador, Caroline Kennedy.
In Beijing, Biden will hold talks with China’s president, Xi Jinping, vice president, Li Yuanchao, and premier, Li Keqiang.
After meeting with South Korean leaders in Seoul, Biden will give a major speech on the U.S.-Korea relationship at Yonsei University and lay a wreath at a cemetery honoring fallen U.S. troops.
The trip comes at a critical time. The U.S. is trying to complete a major trade agreement by year’s end, but it’s not certain the deadline will be honored.
The Trans-Pacific Partnership involving the U.S., Japan and 10 other nations could clear the way for much greater trade with Asia, in line with Obama’s ambitious goal to double U.S. exports by 2015.