Politically, the President needs to show a firm commitment to international law and an inclusive, rules-based system. He can and should call on all actors in the region to support the law of the sea, as well as the use of the International Tribunal of the Law of the Sea, where the Philippines is seeking clarification over some of China’s expansive claims. The region should also be challenged to create risk-reduction measures. China has studiously avoided repeated Japanese requests for direct military-to-military crisis-avoidance mechanisms. All countries in the region should encourage a quick conclusion to negotiate a binding Code of Conduct in the South China Sea. Finally, the fact that the United States is working with virtually all nations in the region on preparing for humanitarian assistance and disaster relief operations, can be reinforced in the Philippines, still recovering from Haiyan. China’s participation in this year’s Rim of the Pacific (RIMPAC) is yet one more reminder that the United States welcomes inclusive cooperation
Finally, regarding the security dimension of rebalancing policy, the President needs to discuss his new nearly $500 billion defense budget request and how it helps preserve engagement and deterrence now and into the future. In Tokyo, he and Prime Minister Abe need to communicate their common commitment to an inclusive, rules-based system, while also moving ahead with new U.S.-Japan Defense Guidelines by the end of the year. In Korea, he and President Park Geun-hye need to reaffirm deterrence while remaining open to greater regional cooperation. Ideally, the United States, Japan and Korea and proceed with their overlapping national interests to be better prepared for a crisis—before North Korea’s next provocation. In the Philippines, President Obama might be in a position to discuss a new rotational military presence that will underscore the alliance and U.S. regional presence. And in Malaysia, where economics will dominate the agenda, the President and Prime Minister Najib Razak can outline a vision for a wider strategic partnership to include the common regional problem of ensuring maritime security.
If the President can make progress across all three dimensions of policy, then surely America will have rediscovered its balance in Asia.