Can US Pacific policy provide Barack Obama with a much needed political boost?
The US president’s quiet international diplomacy has been too calm for most voters to notice. With the economy in such a parlous state trumpeting overseas adventures and turning a blind eye to domestic pain would buy him a certain exit from the White House in November next year. But the US is still a global superpower and the president is still a global president: he has to have a coherent and active foreign policy.
We have seen his Republican rivals stumble when it comes to discussing affairs abroad, most infamously Herman Cain, who was all at sea when pressed on the Libya conflict. Mr Obama himself has had some problems in this department, the most notable of which has probably been his failure to uphold his promise to close Guantánamo Bay detention centre. But, largely, overseas policy is faring much better than life back home.
Looking west, Washington is always anxious to achieve the right policy when it comes to North Korea. The oddball state has friends in China, another country with which the White House has to get the attitude right (and a rising worldwide threat to the US’s position at the top of the global tree). Relations will never be completely free from problems but what is to be commended is the more patient and positive path this administration is trying to take towards tricky overseas matters.
The US Special Representative for North Korea Policy, Glyn Davies, is currently on a tour of the region. He has been to South Korea (7-11 December) and Japan (11-13) and is presently in China (until tomorrow, Thursday 15) meeting politicians to discuss Pyongyang. Japan and South Korea are seen as friendly nations in a turbulent region. China holds the keys to North Korea and the US would like to know that they are in safe hands.
That area of the world is finely balanced. South Korea twitches daily over the sheer unpredictability of its northern neighbour. The government in Seoul has been forced to tighten monitoring of Twitter and Facebook in an attempt to combat an upsurge in illicit propaganda from Pyongyang. South Korea is also having its own spat with China at the moment: it has asked Beijing for security guarantees after its embassy in the Chinese capital was hit by a projectile. Earlier in the year, a South Korean coastguard was killed by a Chinese fisherman. Further to the south, the Philippines has launched its biggest warship yet, the Gregorio de Pilar (a former US Navy cutter), in what has been seen as a show of strength to China. (The two countries are arguing over fishing rights and sovereignty of the Spratly Islands.)
Either way, the US has many interests in the western Pacific, most notably the Northern Mariana Islands and Guam. In November Australia agreed to the deployment of a full US Marines task force. As the examples above point out, the South China Sea and Korean Peninsula are continuing to be international flashpoints. The US is a player in the regional game and must proceed wisely with purpose. This is the sort of delicate diplomacy which can define an administration’s overseas record. It is also the sort of diplomacy that is rarely celebrated from the rooftops and, as such, must not be relied upon to guide a presidential campaign.