China's Rising Influence Looms Over Obama's Asia Trip

President Obama wrapped up a two-day visit to South Korea, warning Pyongyang that pursuing nuclear weapons will only lead to more isolation. Correspondent Anthony Kuhn talks with NPR's Scott Simon.

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SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon. President Obama is in Southeast Asia on the third leg of a four-nation tour of Asia. The visit is aimed at reassuring U.S. allies of its support and its intention to remain the primary power in the Asia Pacific. The president's itinerary does not include China but of course, China's rising influence looms over the entire trip. The president's also trying to move forward on a major trade pact in the region.

NPR's Anthony Kuhn is in Seoul, South Korea, and we asked him what the reactions been to North Korea's threat to launch a nuclear test.

ANTHONY KUHN, BYLINE: Well, luckily, they did not test a nuclear bomb, which they threatened to do. This did not happen while the president was in South Korea. He's now safely in Malaysia but this morning, this was a major theme as both President Obama and his South Korean counterpart, Park Geun-hye, visited the Combined Forces Command for the first time. They emphasized they're beefing up South Korea's defenses. If North Korea conducts a nuclear test, they will push for tougher sanctions.

Of course, President Obama did say on this trip that North Korea is already the world's most isolated state, and so there's not much more they can do to isolate it. But it did give him the chance, in speaking to U.S. soldiers there, to do some rhetorical flexing of the U.S.'s military muscle in the region. And he talked about the two nations' shared values, and then he talked about protecting them. Let's hear him speak.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: We don't use our military might to impose these things on others, but we will not hesitate to use our military might to defend our allies and our way of life.

(APPLAUSE)

SIMON: But what about any success the president had in trying to mend fences between two long-standing antagonists who happen to be U.S. allies - Japan and South Korea?

KUHN: Well, you know, these two country's leaders would not even speak to each other until the president got them together in a trilateral meeting in The Hague last month. And this is a big problem for an Asia policy that is based on military alliances, when the two allies don't get together. So at the root of this, of course, is their interpretation of World War II histories.

President Obama was fairly evenhanded. He criticized Japan's World War II atrocities and called them egregious violations of human rights, but he called on both sides to move on. He might have gotten a different response if he had talked about these atrocities in Japan and not South Korea. But, you know, beneath this there's a strategic mistrust between the two countries, particularly South Korea's mistrust of Japan's intentions, and those are harder to get rid of.

SIMON: And how do the countries in the region react to the president's enunciated policy to try and pivot U.S. policy more to Asia?

KUHN: Well, you know, this is a strategic, signature policy of the Obama administration. And he got support on it from both South Korean and Japanese leaders. China, of course, was not happy about the fact that they're not on the itinerary and that he is voicing support. He is promising U.S. protection for Japan in its administration of disputed islands in the East China Sea, but the response from China was fairly mild so far.

Of course, he wanted to make progress on this Trans-Pacific Partnership, the trade pact that is crucial to his Asia policy. He could claim some progress, but no breakthroughs. And I think there have been concerns in the region about the U.S.'s ability to maintain a focus - also, whether it has the economic wherewithal to maintain its commitments.

SIMON: What's next on the president's agenda when he stops in Malaysia and the Philippines?

KUHN: Well, Scott, maritime security issues will very much be at the top of his concerns. Both Manila and Kuala Lumpur have territorial disputes with China in the South China Sea. In Manila, he may sign an agreement to rotate more U.S. troops through Philippine bases, and there will be some debate in the Philippines on whether the U.S. is welcome back there. And the president will also be trying to get Malaysia and the Philippines on board with the Trans-Pacific Partnership.

SIMON: NPR's Anthony Kuhn in Seoul. Thanks so much.

KUHN: You're welcome, Scott.

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