Ukraine threatens to undermine Obama's delayed Asia 'pivot'

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President Obama is traveling to Asia this week under the cloud of the Ukraine crisis, which threatens to put Asian allies on edge about U.S. security commitments and create yet another distraction from the administration's much-delayed "pivot" to the region.

Obama will be visiting Asian allies, including Japan, South Korea and the Philippines, that are involved in increasingly tense territorial disputes with China. The president will seek to reaffirm U.S. commitment to them.

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That connection was supposed to have been cemented earlier in Obama's tenure, when the administration announced a "rebalance," or "pivot," to Asia. But crises at home and around the world, the latest of which is in Ukraine, have stymied that plan.

"We're almost rescuing the rebalance to Asia," said James Schoff, a former Defense Department senior adviser for East Asia policy under Obama. "It's not necessarily the theme that the White House wanted to go into this trip with."

Russia's successful takeover of Crimea, despite protests from the U.S., is an example concerned allies can point to when questioning American commitment.

"Junior allies are quick to have doubts about the credibility and resolve of their protector," said Richard Bush, a former unofficial U.S. representative to Taiwan. "Our allies in Asia watch carefully what we do in other places to test the proposition that the U.S. commitment to them remains solid."

In a briefing Friday, National Security Adviser Susan Rice connected the Asian territorial disputes to those in Ukraine. She said tension between China and Japan over the control of certain islands needs to be resolved "without resort to coercion or the threat of the use of force."

"That has been consistent, and that is indeed the same principle that we have applied to the situation in Ukraine," Rice added.

She also said that, while the United States has been in "close communication" with its allies in Asia over Ukraine, she has "not heard any unease expressed" from them about U.S. security commitments.

The administration has been trying to make clear that Asia is a priority for several years but with mixed results.

In 2011, then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton heralded a "pivot" to Asia with an article in Foreign Policy called "America's Pacific Century."

"In Asia, they ask whether we are really there to stay, whether we are likely to be distracted again by events elsewhere, whether we can make — and keep — credible economic and strategic commitments, and whether we can back those commitments with action," she wrote. "The answer is: We can, and we will."

There have been plenty of "events elsewhere" that have intruded. Obama twice canceled trips to Asia in his first term because of domestic concerns, then did so again in October because of the government shutdown.

Now the situation in Ukraine threatens to draw attention away yet again.

While negotiators were able to reach a deal Thursday for militants in eastern Ukraine to withdraw from government buildings they had occupied, it is unclear if the deal will endure. If it does not, Ukraine will draw even more energy away from Asia.

"If it doesn't hold and things collapse, people might think, 'Well, the rebalance is less than it appears to be,' " said Douglas Paal, an Asia adviser to Presidents Reagan and George H.W. Bush.

Already, there is the prospect that Obama will have to stand at press conferences in Asian capitals, meant to show a focus on the region, and instead be asked about conflict across the globe in Ukraine.

Much of the team involved in the decision to pivot to Asia has now left the administration, raising questions about whether their replacements are as committed to the strategy.

Clinton, of course, is no longer secretary of state, and her top adviser on the region, Assistant Secretary Kurt Campbell, has also left.

"With them gone, people are constantly looking for signs that the new team has their back," Paal said.

The new secretary of State, John Kerry, has been consumed with trying to keep alive Israeli-Palestinian peace talks and managing the situation in Ukraine. 

If there has been any "rebalancing" at all, it's been done by the U.S. military, rather than the State Department. The Pentagon has announced it is moving 2,500 Marines to Australia, an additional battalion to South Korea, and four Littoral combat ships to Singapore, among other actions.

This military movement is often perceived to be aimed at limiting China's influence.  

China's Minister of Defense Chang Wanquan provided a window into that thinking earlier this month. Standing at a joint press conference with Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel, he asserted that China "can never be contained."

Hagel, in turn, admonished Chang that unilaterally creating an air defense zone over the islands it disputes with Japan "adds to tensions, misunderstandings, and could eventually add to and eventually get to dangerous conflict."

As these tensions rise, Obama intends to shore up alliances in the region with his trip. And while crises like the situation in Ukraine mean Asian allies might not see as much of him as they would like, Bush, the former Taiwan representative, said they probably care about other American contributions more.

"Although showing up is important, I think what's more important is the aircraft carrier battle groups keep showing up," he said.