The Obama Presidency

US-Asia ties flourished under Pacific President

WASHINGTON • President Barack Obama billed himself as the first "Pacific President" soon after he took office in 2009 and he has largely lived up to that reputation.

Under his Asia rebalance policy, ties between the United States and Asia have flourished.

Mr Obama made it a point to visit the region every year of his tenure and attended nearly every one of the annual Asia summits. Earlier this year, he even held the first special meeting of US and Asean leaders on American soil.

In trying to move ties forward, Mr Obama also made great strides in healing the few remaining wounds of the past. He was the first US president to visit the memorial in Hiroshima, and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe reciprocated the gesture with a visit to Pearl Harbour last month.

Under Mr Obama's direction, the US also lifted a decades-old lethal arms embargo on Vietnam. He deepened defence cooperation with Japan and South Korea, and elevated Asean-US ties to the level of a "strategic partnership".

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong paid tribute to Mr Obama's commitment to the region at a White House state dinner in Singapore's honour last year. "As President, your personal leadership and decision to rebalance to Asia has won America new friends and strengthened old partnerships, including with Singapore," said Mr Lee.

Yet Mr Obama's final months in office have been shaken by the shocking election victory of Republican candidate Donald Trump - an event that could seriously threaten the rebalance.

Even before the election, fears of the US turning more nativist had driven some US friends and allies to hedge their bets. The Philippines, more so than any other Asian country, encapsulated the problem. Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, an often controversial figure, appeared eager to cast aside the longstanding relationship as he sought to build closer ties with China.

Mr Obama abruptly called off a meeting with the Filipino leader in September after Mr Duterte used a crude insult against him. On a subsequent visit to China, Mr Duterte declared a "separation" from the US.

As a result, China, sensing the leadership void the US was providing, has slowly but surely increased its influence.

Now that Mr Trump will take over the White House, the future of US-Asia ties looks even more uncertain. The incoming president has promised to withdraw immediately from the Trans-Pacific Partnership free trade deal - a key pillar of the Asia rebalance.

The saving grace for Mr Obama's rebalance may be that the President was ultimately right that the US needs to shift its focus to the region. There is bipartisan agreement in Congress that US engagement in the region is critical.

In addition, Mr Trump - who has largely spoken about Asia in antagonistic terms during his campaign - has since shown that he is not about to turn his back on the region completely. Mr Abe was the first foreign leader to have a face-to-face meeting with the President-elect, and he emerged from the meeting sounding an optimistic note.

"Our alliance will not function without trust," Mr Abe said.

"I came away convinced that President-elect Trump is a leader who can be trusted."

Jeremy Au Yong

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on January 08, 2017, with the headline 'US-Asia ties flourished under Pacific President'. Print Edition | Subscribe