by Brian Hioe

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Editor: Wen Liu
Photo Credit: Kevin Lamarque/Reuters

Cementing the Asia Pivot?

OBAMA’S RECENT visit to Asia would seem to be aimed at cementing the Asia Pivot, with visits to Vietnam and Japan. Both visits were historic, with Obama repealing the US ban on arms sales to Vietnam after his visit there, and with Obama being the first US president to visit the site of the atomic bomb dropped in Hiroshima during World War II.

Notably, Vietnam and Japan share the similarity of being countries that the US was once at war with in the past. Both countries also share the similarity of being caught between the two superpowers of China and America in the present. Thus, Obama’s visit to both countries in the present would be to strengthen American ties with both, with eyes set including both in efforts aimed at containing a rising China. There was also the economic aspect to the trip, given that both countries are member states within the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) agreement, and the TPP is currently in the process of ratification by member countries. In Japan, Obama also attended the 42nd G7 conference in Japan’s Mie Prefecture, which was the purpose of his Japan trip.

PhotoCreditReutersObama while in Vietnam. Photo credit: Reuters

Japan is undoubtedly the country which is closer to the US, given the maintenance of American bases in Japan since the end of World War II and that the Vietnam War was fought against the Vietnamese Communist Party which currently rules the country. Yet if Vietnam in the past was seen as closer to China due to the perception of shared ideology, recent years there have been anti-Chinese protests due to poor working conditions in Chinese and Taiwanese-owned factories and territorial disputes over South China Seas territories, which has led to incidents between Chinese and Vietnamese coast guard boats. The possibility of conflict between China and Vietnam or China and Japan increasingly looms on the horizon with China’s military and economic rise in recent years, given South China Seas islands with conflicting claims by China, Japan, Taiwan, Vietnam, and the Philippines are a possible hotspot for conflict.

Indeed, Obama’s visit to both Vietnam and Japan saw protest from Chinese state-run media, China claiming that America was stirring up territorial aggressions by opening up arms sales to Vietnam and protesting that the Nanjing Massacre was a greater tragedy than the use of the nuclear bomb on Hiroshima after Obama’s visit there. However, it would be that in cementing the Asia Pivot, Obama would attempt to smooth out rough patches with both countries.

American Empire’s Alliance With Questionably Authoritarian Political Forces

THOUGH MAKING passing remarks about the importance of human rights, Obama notably but unsurprisingly failed to raise questions about the human rights abuses committed by the Vietnamese Communist Party, regarding its silencing of political dissidents or restrictions on political freedoms. Indeed, it is reported that Facebook was blocked in Vietnam during Obama’s visit to Vietnam. Obama’s visit comes at a time of protest against mass fish die-offs and the Vietnamese government’s poor government handling of the incident, as a result of pollution by the Taiwanese-owned company Formosa Steel, with the Vietnamese government taking steps to suppress dissent and bending backwards in order to defend Formosa Steel.

On the other hand, in Japan, Obama did not go so far as to apologize for the Hiroshima bombing and also had to negotiate the recent killing of a twenty-year-old Japanese woman by a former US marine from Kadena Air Base in Okinawa. The killing is seen as the latest of a history of murders and sexual assaults committed by American servicemen based out of Okinawa going back decades, including kidnapping and rape of a 12-year-old in 1995 by American servicemen and rape of a 14-year-old in 2008, and deaths from vehicle accidents by vehicles driven by American servicemen. This incident has prompted much backlash in Japan. One may generally question the American military’s condescending views of Okinawan natives as contributing to the pattern of crimes committed against them, as seen in training materials for troops stationed in Okinawa recently made public through a FOIA request.

In both Vietnam and Japan, in order to secure the Asia Pivot, the Obama administration has allied itself with questionable authoritarian political forces. If the Vietnamese Communist Party’s repression of dissent is the more visibly authoritarian, the right-wing Abe government has also attempted to crack down on dissent with the passing of the State Secrecy Law—which allows for the Japanese government cracking down on political dissent in the name of state security. The State Secrecy Law has had a chilling effect on Japanese media, allowing the Abe administration to silence critics of it on matters such as the reinterpretation of Article 9 of the Japanese constitution or its pro-nuclear energy policies. The Abe administration also promotes a revisionist view of history which denies historical Japanese wrongdoing by the Japanese empire and takes measures to defame those in Japan that take issue with its historical revisionism.

Obama laying a wreath while in Hiroshima. Photo credit: Shuji Kajiyama/AP

It is still to be seen what other measures the Obama administration will take during Obama’s remaining presidential term in order to cement the Asia Pivot, as well as what the actions of the subsequent presidential administration will be. But many of the countries to be included in the Asia Pivot generally have questionable human rights records, including South Korea and the Philippines. If the Philippines is being reported more in terms of political violence, South Korea under the Park presidency has also seen the return of political repression harkening back to South Korea’s authoritarian period.

It remains to be questioned as to what the steps the American government will take regarding Taiwan’s inclusion or non-inclusion in the Asia Pivot, as well as regarding the TPP. In the case of Taiwan and the Philippines, however, there is the additional factor of recent turnovers in government. If the Tsai administration differs from the current presidential administrations in Japan and South Korea as a relatively mild center-Left administration rather than the far Right presidential administrations we see presently in Japan and South Korea, and as a less pro-China administration as compared to a KMT one would be, Taiwan would fit more or less neatly into the Asia Pivot. In regards to the Philippines, some questions remain whether the Duterte presidency will see rapprochement with China, although the issue of territorial conflicts regarding South China Seas islands still remain at stake. As such, we will see as to the fate of the Asia Pivot through future American attempts to weave the Asia-Pacific together in order to contain China.