KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia — On every stop of his Asian journey in the past week, President Obama has spoken to two audiences: America’s allies and China. The balancing act has become even more delicate because of the sharp deterioration in the United States’ relations with Russia.
Perhaps no country has more to gain from a new Cold War than China, which has historically benefited from periods of conflict between the United States and Russia and, analysts say, could exploit these latest tensions to lean even harder on its neighbors in the region.
As Obama has traveled from Japan to South Korea and, now, Malaysia, he has delivered a carefully calibrated message to reassure America’s friends of its support while discouraging the Chinese from any thoughts of opening a second front on the Pacific Rim.
In Tokyo on Thursday, Obama vowed to defend Japan in a territorial dispute with China, but urged the Japanese to show restraint and insisted that he wanted solid relations with Beijing. The next day in Seoul, the South Korean capital, he pledged to defend South Korea from the renegade North, a Chinese ally, but went out of his way to enlist Beijing in that effort.
“We’re not interested in containing China,” Obama said, even as he embarked on what some experts said could be portrayed as a “containment tour,” visiting four countries that worry about Chinese expansionism while skipping Beijing itself.
“We’re interested in China’s peaceful rise and it being a responsible and powerful proponent of the rule of law,” he insisted. But he added, “In that role, it has to abide by certain norms.”
The president laid out a vivid case for why China should not mimic Russia’s adventurism. The escalating sanctions against Russia over its threats to Ukraine, he said, will weaken an economy facing deep challenges because of its reliance on oil and gas.
‘We’re not interested in containing China. [But] it has to abide by certain norms.’
The portrait Obama painted of Russia was withering. Speaking in Tokyo, he said that Russia “needs to diversify its economy, because the rest of the world is moving further and further off the fossil fuels that are the primary way that Russia is able to bankroll itself.”
By playing up Russia’s weaknesses and predicting that they will worsen because of President Vladimir Putin’s aggression, Obama seemed to be saying to Chinese officials who might be contemplating closer ties with Moscow: Stick with a winning team.
“The message is: ‘Don’t think that what Putin is doing in Eastern Ukraine is so brilliant that you should be inspired by it. Don’t think that this is a model that could work for you,’ ” said Jeffrey A. Bader, who was the senior China adviser on the National Security Council until 2011.
Bader warned last week that a few poorly chosen phrases could turn Obama’s trip into a containment tour. But he said Obama had gotten the balance right in Japan and South Korea. The president robustly reaffirmed America’s support for its treaty allies while avoiding statements that would isolate or antagonize China.
So far, China’s reaction has been muted. The Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs issued a perfunctory objection to Obama’s assertion that the US security treaty with Japan obligates the United States to protect a clump of islands in the East China Sea that are administered by Japan but claimed by both Japan and China.
But it has been silent since then, much as it abstained from the debates in the United Nations over Russia’s actions in Crimea. China, some analysts said, is content not to pick a fight with the United States at a time when events, in Asia and elsewhere, seem to be going in its favor.
Leaders in Japan and South Korea said they were reassured by Obama’s words. But among experts in both countries, there was lingering uneasiness about the depth of American resolve.
“The wording of his statements was OK, but if you look at his demeanor and tone, he was very nuanced and trying not to get entangled in disputes with China,” said Narushige Michishita, an expert on security policy at the National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies in Tokyo.
Lee Geun, a professor of international studies at Seoul National University, said the situation in Ukraine raised inevitable questions. “What if North Korea tries something, or what if China tries to do something with North Korea?” he said. “Would the US come to South Korea’s defense?”