When President Obama boarded Air Force One for a 10-day, three-country tour just hours after a small group of gunmen and suicide bombers unleashed deadly terror on Paris, it seemed inevitable that his main message about countering the rise of China would be lost.
But in the president’s view, the security concerns that arose after the deadly attack made his work to deepen ties with China’s neighbors all the more significant. The Southeast Asian nations whom he has courted as a way to blunt Chinese influence share his worry about the potency of Islamic State, and they appear to have found fresh comfort during his trip in America’s strong security hand.
As he prepared Sunday to return to Washington, Obama made his case that his administration’s long-term endeavor to redeploy U.S. diplomatic, military and economic resources toward Asia is no less critical to national security than his strategy in the Middle East.
At a news conference at the close of his trip, Obama pointed to a headline that appeared while he was abroad — “Obama’s Asian distraction?” — and said, “The premise seemed to be that this region was somehow disconnected from pressing global events. I could not disagree more. This region is not a distraction from the world’s central challenges, like terrorism.”
Combining a stop at the Group of 20 summit in Turkey with visits to the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation meeting in Manila and finally the annual ASEAN gathering of Southeast Asian nations here, the trip was laid out as an opportunity for Obama to highlight progress on his pivot to Asia. Of particular importance to him was the new Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal that encompasses a quarter of the world’s trade. And Southeast Asian nations were themselves closing in on a long-sought arrangement to leverage their growing economic clout.
“But the events of recent days and weeks have cast a shadow over us all,” Najib Razak, prime minister of the Muslim-majority host nation of Malaysia, said this week in a speech condemning the Paris attacks and “this new evil that blasphemes against the name of Islam.”
The Paris attacks, which killed at least 130 and which Islamic State claimed credit for, only reinforced how much countries in the region look to the U.S. for help in combating terrorist groups, according to Ernest Bower, chair of Southeast Asia studies at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
Already, Asian leaders were concerned about the return of their citizens who were drawn to sectarian conflicts in the Mideast. Nearly 30,000 foreigners have joined the fight in Syria, U.S. officials have estimated in underscoring their own concerns about the flow of fighters from across the globe to the 5-year-old civil war there.
“You look around the world to where there could be problems, and Southeast Asia really stands out,” said Bower. “Though numbers of radicalized Islamists are relatively small compared to the total Muslim populations in these countries, Southeast Asia could be just as susceptible as Europe, if not more. They have radicalized Islamists ... and in some cases they also have less developed tools to track and arrest terrorists.”
When Indonesian President Joko Widodo traveled to Washington last month for the first time since taking office, he asked Obama for U.S. support for tracking and monitoring radicalized Indonesians trying to come back from war zones. And Malaysia, Singapore, Brunei and the Philippines are all seeking American help in building up their own counterterrorism capabilities.
“It really underlines the importance of American leadership,” said Bower.
Obama’s critics, though, doubt that his leadership will be effective for the 65-nation coalition fighting Islamic State, especially as the fallout of the Syrian crisis spreads.
Obama has fiercely resisted sending in a surge of American ground troops to fight Islamic State and has said no thus far to creating a no-fly zone in Syria that would require U.S. enforcement – possibly for months or years.
Rep. Martha McSally (R-Ariz.) branded Obama’s strategy a “reluctant approach” that emboldens Islamic State. She called on the president to “step up, provide global leadership and put together a coherent and aggressive strategy to defeat” the extremist group as she delivered the GOP weekly radio address.
On Sunday, Fran Townsend, the former homeland security advisor to President George W. Bush, charged that the “current strategy is failing” in part because it is too diffuse.
“You can’t have a multipronged approach to fighting ISIS any longer,” Townsend said on CBS’ “Face the Nation.” “You must have a Syria-first policy now, in order to disrupt the global threat.”
But an approach to Islamic State that is global both in its reach and its makeup is critical to Obama’s formula. Haunted by the U.S. failure to help create stable leadership in Iraq after the war there, he has repeatedly insisted that local and regional governments invest in the fight against Islamic State to bring about long-term stability.
And on Saturday, the president announced the elevation of the U.S.-ASEAN relationship to a strategic partnership, a move largely driven by regional issues like disputed territorial claims in the South China Sea but one with added significance given what Obama noted were the key roles played by some member nations in the international coalition against Islamic State. Malaysia, for example, is opening a center to counter the group’s propaganda.
“Over the years, our friends here in Asia have been victims of terrorism, and many of them are close counterterrorism partners with us,” Obama said Sunday. “So my time here has also been an opportunity to work with many of our partners in the Asia Pacific that are members of our coalition against ISIL.”
There were signs that China is watching the U.S. efforts in Asia closely. Chinese leaders sought to use the summits to promote economic initiatives center on China, which is not a party to the TPP trade pact; President Xi Jinping promoted a separate trade proposal at APEC. And in Kuala Lumpur on Sunday, Premier Li Keqiang outlined a new five-point plan to resolve the South China Sea disputes.
Obama’s defense of his Asia diplomacy Sunday also made public the discontent of White House officials over how media coverage was quick to claim the president’s agenda was thrown off by the terrorist attacks. Obama has attended these summits before with aspirational rhetoric, and his aides were eager to highlight how the past year brought concrete results from the rebalance, like the trade deal and greater military cooperation. In Manila, Obama highlighted the quarter-billion dollars being allocated to boost the region’s maritime capabilities, including plans for the U.S. to deliver two new ships to the Philippine navy.
“The Asia Pacific is absolutely critical to promoting security, prosperity and human dignity around the world,” he said Sunday. “That’s why I’ve devoted so much of my foreign policy to deepening America’s engagement with this region.”
Memoli reported from Kuala Lumpur and Parsons from Washington.