Obama Finally Gets Back to the Asia-Pacific

The Obama Administration is turning its focus back to the Asia-Pacific, and President Barack Obama's big trip there, beginning with a state visit to Japan on Wednesday and Thursday before proceeding to South Korea, Malaysia, and the Philippines.

Is the Ukraine crisis settled? That would be, er, no. There sure is a surfeit of excitable people in that country. And Russia under Vladimir Putin is insistent on its goals. But, despite continued hype, the crisis has cooled somewhat. I think the administration knows what it will take to settle things, i.e., the assurance that NATO isn't suddenly cropping up just a few hundred miles from Moscow.

As President Barack Obama comes to the Asia-Pacific region, China has produced Top Gun-style music videos hyping the pride and joy of its rapidly expanding naval forces, the Liaoning, its first and only aircraft carrier. This one, "Leading the Dream," which features a special ballad, extols the role of the carrier in advancing what President Xi Jinping calls "The Chinese Dream."

This is a critical time for the the Asia-Pacific Pivot. Which is, of course, America's shift from its fateful post-9/11 fixations with the Islamic world of the Middle East and Central Asia to the rising Asia-Pacific. You can see a collection of my related pieces over the past year or so on HuffPost's Asia-Pacific Pivot Big News page.

Obama flew across the Pacific over Tuesday night our time, arriving in Tokyo -- which is 16 hours ahead of California and 13 hours ahead of New York -- just in time for a very late night dinner meeting with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. The still relatively new prime minister, who has succeeded in re-consolidating the political control of the Liberal Democratic Party after the longtime ruling center to center/right party spent a few years in the wilderness, is a key ally for America. But his revival of Japanese nationalism, while useful in making Japan more assertive on the global stage at a time in which the US needs some highly capable allies, can be problematic in sometimes stirring up bad feelings from Japan's own imperialist past prior to and during World War II.

The heavy lifting for Obama comes on Thursday when he will hold the highest level meetings and issue some statements about America's geopolitical pivot to the Asia-Pacific, alliance with Japan, and relations with a very aggressive China whose absence late last year when Washington's political dysfunction caused the cancellation of this trip as originally scheduled created some credibility problems for the US.

Obama begins with a state call with Emperor Akihito and Empress Michiko at the Imperial Palace, located in park-like grounds in the middle of Tokyo once said to be worth more than all the real estate in California. Then he holds a summit meeting and joint press conference with Prime Minister Abe at the Akasaka Palace, the official residence for visiting state dignitaries. The Obama visits the National Museum of Emerging Science and Innovation for a tour and speech to students. From there, Obama goes on to the Meiji Shrine, a Shinto shrine situated in a large urban forest in the center of Tokyo dedicated to the emperor credited with moving Japan from feudalism to modernity in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. There he will host a roundtable meeting with US and Japanese business leaders. In the evening Obama will attend the Japanese State Dinner in honor of the United States and its president at the Imperial Palace with the Imperial family and its ministers.

New US Ambassador Caroline Kennedy, whose appointment was initially rapturously received by a Japanese public deeply impressed by her lineage and style, has been controversial at times for her criticism of Japanese fishing practices and of some efforts by leaders to place a sepia tone over some brutal acts during the Pacific War portion of World War II.

More to the point, the US and Japan need to be on the same page in coordinating efforts to simultaneously contain and engage China. The administration publicly denies it is out to contain China, but let's leave the non-serious spin to the spinners. China's rise and increasing assertiveness is a core reason for the existence of the Pivot. And its newfound aggressiveness in pressuring its neighbors by claiming virtually the entire South China Sea, one of the world's most strategic and well-trafficked bodies of water, as sovereign Chinese territory, and asserting a air defense zone over much of the East China Sea, including islands long occupied as Japanese territory, is why the US has the opportunity to be a popular broker in the vast region, whose ocean is the world's largest, whose waters and surface areas constitute over half the planet.

If Japan stirs up bad old feelings about its rapaciously imperial Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere days while effectively jettisoning the MacArthur-dictated pacifist constitution as it powers up its military, it becomes a more problematic ally. This is especially so with regard to South Korea, which should form a tight three-part alliance with the US and Japan, but bristles every time Abe, who was a grad student in public policy at the University of Southern California, or some other Japanese leader seems to ignore or explain away the behavior of Japanese forces after their conquest of South Korea.

"Flying Sharks," set to patriotic modern instrumentals, depicts Chinese carrier air ops and the heroic pilots who carry them out.

America's serious problems with dysfunctionality and distractions have cast the Pivot into some doubt in Japan and elsewhere. Last fall's federal government shutdown was a watershed event. That it forced Obama to cancel his big trip to the Asia-Pacific only further drove home the doubts about America's reliability as a partner stirred up by its evident fatigue following a decade-plus of very expensive and largely fruitless and counter-productive war in Islamic nations on the other side of the world.

That America, after all that, nearly wandered into the Syrian civil war and, more recently, was surprised by Russia's unsurprising grave displeasure over the pro-Western coup in Ukraine did nothing to dispel concerns.

Meanwhile, China is defying the slow American pivot to the Pacific with a rapid military build-up.

While some Chinese leaders evidently want to force the US from the Western Pacific, the Chinese build-up isn't anything the US can't handle for the foreseeable future. So long as it is not endlessly distracted, that is.

This is especially so given a largely unremarked upon Chinese strategic vulnerability. As the PRC's PR machine ramps up the image of ascending Chinese military prowess and increasing power projection, what gets ignored is China's shocking lack of foreign bases or even port access agreements. This became evident when Chinese naval forces got seriously over-stretched and over-stressed by the search for that notorious missing Malaysian airliner.

Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel served as a sort of opening act for Obama early this month in his latest long tour of the Asia-Pacific, which time took him to China. He visited the PRC's first aircraft carrier and met with top leaders, who seemed to be trying to convince him that China cannot be "contained." I suspect they are trying to convince themselves of that.

Earlier he went to Japan, where he met with Prime Minister and USC alum Shinzo Abe and top defense officials to again affirm the mutual security treaty between US and Japan in the midst of an ongoing stand-off between China and Japan in the East China Sea.

And before that, Hagel hosted the three-day ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) defense ministers conference in Hawaii, the first time that an ASEAN summit has taken place in America. The US, of course, while a longstanding Pacific power, is not a Southeast Asian nation.

But it is Obama who will deliver the most important messages and deliver the most important signals.

And here is the ur-text for the new Chinese PR, the opening titles of Top Gun, from 1986. The US Navy has had its planes taking off from and landing on aircraft carriers -- something China just began in 2013 -- since the 1920s.

On the one hand, Obama will extoll relations with America's current and potential allies, which both fear China and, in most cases, desire good commercial relations with the emerging superpower. While profit is always welcome, it is generally trumped by security, and for the latter many nations of the region look to the US for a continuation of its role as security's guarantor.

On the other hand, Obama will have to hold open the prospect of creative engagement with China. Cooperation between China and the US would help diminish turbulence in global affairs and lead to solutions for problems which may otherwise be insoluble such as climate change and resource scarcity.

Quite unlike the bad old Cold War days, the US and China of today are economically symbiotic, with China needing access to American markets and the US needing Chinese finance.

So the positive US strategy toward China is not at all unlike California's economic strategy toward China. Governors Jerry Brown and Arnold Schwarzenegger, who both conducted high-profile tours of China and hosted Chinese officials in summit talks -- with Brown actually conducting a parallel summit with President Xi Jinping and Chinese leaders during the Obama-Xi summit last year in California -- have both aggressively sought Chinese investment and trade opportunities while forging agreements to provide Californian policy and tech expertise in helping China adopt more of an ethic of stewardship toward its own rather fouled environment. That's something needed not only to move stalled global climate change talks forward but also to help China avoid even more damage to the health of its citizens and its overall quality of life.

It's a complicated set of realities and possibilities with which Obama must contend on this trip. But he can achieve most if not all of his goals, so long as he convinces everyone that he and his administration will maintain focus.