Specter of China Loomed Over Obama's Asian Tour

Obama's East Asia Visit. Screen Capture from Voice of America.

Obama's East Asia visit. Screen capture from Voice of America.

Call it the 800-pound panda in the room.

That's how one might view China during U.S. President Barack Obama's recently concluded trip to Japan, South Korea, Malaysia and the Philippines.

His much-ballyhooed “pivot to Asia” was dominated by discussions about the country that were not on the itinerary. Both in China and beyond, people viewed the weeklong tour – and announcements such as a new defense agreement with the Philippines – as a message to the world's most populous nation.

M. Taylor Fravel, a professor of international relations at MIT, tweeted about the major outcome of the trip – more American muscle in Asia:

Also on Twitter, China watcher Damien Ma, co-author of “In Line Behind a Billion People,” summed up the Chinese government's retort to Obama's visit this way:

On Reddit, an online community for discussing news stories, a user named “10_Eyes_8_Truths” called the spat between the United States and China childish, describing it like this:

China: Stop pointing your thing at me America

America: I'm not pointing at you. I'm pointing near you.

China: Stop, stop it, STAHP!

For many Chinese, Obama tipped his hand as he began his trip in Japan. There, he waded into the territorial dispute over the uninhabited islands known as Senkaku in Japan, Diaoyu in China and Tiaoyutai in Taiwan. All three countries claim the islands. After World War II, the U.S. gave Japan control of the islands.

On popular microblogging site Sina Weibo, a user named Ruby Yanru expressed sarcasm over a BBC report that “President Obama said the U.S. would oppose any attempt to undermine Japan's administration of the disputed Senkaku or Diaoyu Islands in the East China Sea.”

Obama's actual position on the issue was more nuanced. He said the islands fall under a security treaty that obligates the U.S. to act if Japan is attacked.

“This is not a new position,” Obama said during a joint press conference with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. At the same time, the U.S. president said he is not drawing a “red line.” He said that America has no position “on final sovereignty over the islands” and that Japan and China should seek a peaceful resolution.

His careful language prompted China to warn Japan not to push the issue or to count on U.S. military intervention.

On Weibo, many Chinese felt Obama was less than enchanted by his Japanese hosts. In fact, one of the hot searches that week was “Obama is acting cold toward Japan.” Weibo user @hongsemushi interpreted Obama's attitude like this:


There are no forever friends and enemies in the diplomatic world, especially among big countries. The game is based merely on the evaluation of interest and conflict. Obama's visit to Japan without his wife's accompany, without making a speech at the Congress and without staying at the State Guest House [which is located inside the Palace], made Japan very disappointed and anxious. While many Chinese were cheering for the cold act, we also heard him bluffing about Diaoyu Islands and found that annoying. This is the true nature of American people.

After two days in Japan, Obama spent a day in Seoul, South Korea, and two days in Malaysia. In both countries, the U.S. president paused to mourn recent tragedies – the Korean ferry that capsized on April 16 killing at least 250 passengers, and the Malaysian airliner that disappeared on March 8 with 239 people aboard which still hasn't been found.

But in Seoul, Obama also talked tough. He called on North Korea “to start changing your behavior.”

“The U.S. and South Korea stand shoulder to shoulder, both in face of Pyongyang's provocations and our refusal to accept a nuclear North Korea,” Obama said.

That prompted North Korea to threaten to test a nuclear bomb and call South Korean President Park Geun-hye a “crafty prostitute” and Obama her “pimp.” The story spawned about 2,000 comments on Reddit. A Reddit user Kazumakat wrote:

North Korea's like that angry homeless lunatic that comes to the coffee shop of countries and sits in his corner away from everyone, claiming he has a gun and wants his tea.

The problem here is that Japan, South Korea, China, and the rest of Asia are at the next table, with their requisite pity / sadness / shaudenfreude happening over NK, but in the back of their minds, are actually worried if NK actually has a working gun or not, and whether or not it's safe for a lunatic to have it in the coffee shop.

Obama concluded his Asian tour with two days in the Philippines – perhaps the trip's most controversial stop. In recent months, the Philippines and China have been embroiled over competing claims in the West Philippine Sea, also known as the South China Sea.

As Obama arrived in Manila, the White House announced a new 10-year security agreement that will will give the U.S. military greater access to bases in the Philippines.

While President Benigno Aquino greeted Obama warmly, hundreds of protesters demonstrated against the return of American troops. Activists posted the video on YouTube: 

Many saw the defense agreement as the most significant outcome of Obama's trip:

The U.S. president insisted that the agreement wasn't meant as a shot across China's bow:

Still, as Obama returned to Washington, many people felt the tour's subtext was to send a message to Beijing.

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