By: Khanh Vu Duc and Duvien Tran

On April 23, US President Barack Obama will begin his four-country tour through Asia-Pacific, starting in Japan before continuing on to South Korea, Malaysia, and the Philippines. The tour is designed to serve to strengthen and renew relations between the United States and its allies and partners in a region of ever increasing importance.

Absent is China, although China will never be far from the mind of President Obama or his counterparts. In Japan, the question of the disputed Senkaku/Daioyu Islands will undoubtedly be raised; in South Korea, the question of North Korea and China’s influence in Pyongyang; and in Malaysia, improving relations between Washington and Kuala Lumpur to counter Beijing’s reach. In the Philippines, President Obama and Filipino President Benigno S. Aquino III will most certainly discuss China’s increasing assertiveness in the South China Sea, and the return of American troops to the country.

If, as part of its rebalancing strategy, the US hopes to maintain a presence in Asia-Pacific, it must contend with China, which would like nothing more than to limit, if not expel, the US from the Western Pacific. To this end, America’s regional anchor in Japan must be neutralized, and what better way than to force the White House to wade into the territorial and maritime disputes that plague the Pacific.

On the matter of the Senkaku/Diaoyus – or if looking beyond to the Spratly Islands disputes or numerous other disputes in the South China Sea and elsewhere – the US has remained firm on avoiding sovereignty disputes. Although it wasted little time challenging China’s air defense identification zone (ADIZ) in the East China Sea, the US has until recently maintained some distance on commenting on the disputes, except to reiterate the importance of freedom of navigation.

On February 5, however, in his testimony before the House Subcommittee on Asia and the Pacific, Daniel R. Russel, Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs, waded into the territorial and maritime disputes, particularly China’s claims under the controversial “nine-dash line” map – a clear challenge to China’s position in the region.

Yet, although China’s assertiveness has been cause for great concern by its regional neighbors, it remains to be seen if the US can step in and assuage these concerns. Budgetary constraints will undoubtedly restrict American investment in the region, as well as critical defense spending necessary to maintain the country’s force projection abilities. Beyond the politics of Washington, for countries such as Vietnam, the US is seen as a counterbalance to China, rather than a true ally in the traditional sense of the word.

Foundations for the future

If President Obama expects America’s influence to overtake China’s, he will quickly find himself disappointed. Despite whatever concerns born from China’s assertiveness, countries throughout Asia-Pacific will continue to look to China, in part because it is a permanent fixture in the region. The US may call itself a Pacific nation, but it is far removed from the goings-on of Asia-Pacific. Regardless of whatever presence the US maintains in the area, it will not be seen as a resident power without serious commitment.

President Obama must therefore redefine America as not a visitor but a permanent inhabitant of Asia-Pacific; and the conclusion of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) will certainly be one way of securing America’s place in the region. If the agreement should succeed, it would harmonize and expand trade between its twelve member countries, leading to millions of potential new jobs and billions of dollars in investments.

Trade, however, is merely the first foot through the door. If President Obama intends for the US to maintain a permanent presence in Asia-Pacific, he must work to convince countries such as Vietnam, to look at the US as something more than a security umbrella. If the US allows itself to be defined as nothing more than a shield against Chinese aggression and assertiveness, Washington’s influence will be limited to such concerns. The US would benefit from having not only a voice in regional matters but also an understanding and influential voice in support.

Looking at prominent Asian leaders, it is difficult to find one that is openly pro-American. To be sure, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and South Korean Jung Hong-won look to the US for military support where national defense is concerned (China for the former and North Korea for the latter). However, both Japan and South Korea share a complicated relationship with the US with regards to America’s troop placements in the two countries, which make it difficult for either state leader to openly champion the US in their respective country.

Filipino President Aquino may prove most receptive to the US; however, he is but one leader in a region where countries typically skew nationalist. Influential leaders such as Singapore’s Lee Kuan Yew, whose ability to speak to both the East and the West and who has largely passed from the scene, are rare.

If nothing else, President Obama’s trip should at least serve to strengthen America’s commitment to Asia-Pacific. However, if he hopes for the US to make a difference, he will need to start by having someone of influence on the inside ready to vouch for him.

Khanh Vu Duc is a lawyer and part-time law professor at the University of Ottawa. His research covers Vietnamese politics, international relations and international law. Duvien Tran is a special research associate at VDK Law Office in Ottawa focusing on foreign policy and South China Sea security issues.