Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Obama has to address US’ future on Asia trip

Obama has to address US’ future on Asia trip

By Richard Halloran

Tuesday, Nov 10, 2009, Page 8

US President Barack Obama is to begin his first trip to Asia as president this week, striding along a trail blazed by his straight-talking secretary of defense, Robert Gates.

Stripped of diplomatic lingo, Gates has recently insisted that the Japanese proceed with a realignment of US forces as agreed after 15 years of negotiation. He has insisted that China stop disrupting military exchanges whenever the US takes a position that displeases Beijing, and he has insisted that South Koreans not delay accepting full responsibility for the defense of their own nation.

Undoubtedly, Asian leaders will be watching to see whether Obama will be equally firm as he travels to Tokyo, Beijing and Seoul, with a stop in Singapore to attend the APEC forum and to meet Southeast Asian leaders.

A senior member of the US National Security Council staff, Jeffrey Bader, said on Friday Obama’s message would be that “the US is here to stay in Asia.” Bader also said the US president would “speak very directly” to Chinese leaders on human rights and other issues with “toughness and adaptability.”

The dilemma he faces in Japan concerns the execution of a plan to move the Futenma air base in Okinawa out of Ginowan City to a less constricted area; to transfer 17,000 Marines, civilians and dependents from Okinawa to Guam; and to return to Okinawans land used by US forces. The new government in Tokyo, led by Japanese Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama, wants to reopen the issue.

“Our view is clear. The Futenma relocation facility is the lynchpin of the realignment road map. Without the Futenma realignment ... there will be no relocation to Guam. And without relocation to Guam, there will be no consolidation of forces and the return of land in Okinawa,” Gates said in Tokyo.

Among the critical issues with China are exchanges in which Chinese and US officers visit each other’s forces and discuss military concerns. When General Xu Caihou (徐才厚), who is among the most senior officers of the People’s Liberation Army, was in Washington recently, Gates emphasized that military relations were key to the overall China-US relationship.

Pentagon spokesman Geoff Morrell said Gates told Xu “there is a need to break the on-again, off-again cycle of our military-to-military relationship.” Often, Morrell said, China suspends exchanges to show its displeasure with Washington, the most recent having been an interruption after the US announced arms sales to Taiwan in October last year.

In response, the official Chinese press reported that Xu demanded that the US stop arms sales to Taiwan, keep US military aircraft and ships out of China’s exclusive economic zone and overcome a “lack of strategic trust” with China. He also said China had “no room to make concessions” on core issues such as sovereignty over Taiwan.

In South Korea, the question is Seoul’s assumption of responsibility for national defense, which is now shared with the US. The US and South Korea have agreed that will take place in 2012 but, Seoul officials said, South Korean President Lee Myung-bak and defense officials want to delay that shift for several years, asserting that South Korea is not ready.

Gates, in South Korea recently, sought to head off delays, asserting the country’s armed forces are “well positioned to take the lead in the combined defense of this country.” Gates quoted Lee as saying that South Korean forces must “adapt and transform to new environments and new types of threats” and to “carry out roles commensurate with its growing stature as a global Korea.”

As he begins his Asian venture in Tokyo, Obama’s agenda calls for a policy address in which he lays out his vision for the US’ future in Asia.

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