WASHINGTON, D.C. — Barack Obama makes his first trip as president to Asia this week. He’s intent on forging new relationships with emerging Asian countries, including China, and on reinvigorating ties to longtime allies such as Japan and South Korea.
Mr. Obama is the first American president with what one aide calls an “Asia-Pacific orientation,” having grown up in Indonesia and Hawaii. That understanding is behind what will be Obama’s dual message: that Asia, as the site of so much of the 21st century’s economic growth and political heft, will be crucial to answering the world’s major challenges; and that the United States intends to remain a leader across Asia.
It’s the second part of the trip’s theme that even a message meister like Obama will have to work to convey, some Asia experts say. That will be especially true, they add, when it comes to answering doubts about America’s traditional place as the engine for global economic recovery.
“How you’re going to revive global growth, what’s going to happen with trade, is really going to be the elephant in the room for a lot of these countries, and it’s one [topic] where, currently, the US doesn’t have a lot to say,” says Steven Schrage, an international business expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington.
“We’re reaching a time when this kind of void in US leadership, as it drags on, is being filled by other nations rapidly moving forward,” he adds. “It’s a pretty … sharp contrast between the US and Asia.”
Obama’s seven-day trip – including a summit of Asian-Pacific leaders and another of Southeast Asian leaders – suggests how important Asia is for the US, and for this president in particular. “One of the messages that the president will be sending in his visit is that we are an Asia-Pacific nation and we are there for the long haul,” says Ben Rhodes, the White House deputy national security adviser for strategic communications.
Obama will visit Japan, Singapore, China, and South Korea. He will emphasize how important Asia is to addressing such global challenges as climate change and development. But in each stop, he will encounter issues that the White House would rather “sweep under the rug,” as one analyst says: in Japan, US military bases on Okinawa; in China, human rights and Tibet; a stalled free-trade agreement in South Korea.
Obama, who begins traveling Thursday with his first-ever visit to Alaska, did shave one day off the trip’s front end to attend the memorial service at Fort Hood, Texas. But the fact that he is still taking a lengthy trip when so much at home hangs in the balance – from healthcare reform to Afghanistan policy – suggests to some how crucial he considers long-term US-Asia relations.
“President Obama deserves a lot of credit,” says Michael Green, who served the Bush administration on Asia issues and is now at CSIS. “Given everything that’s happening that’s so critical to his presidency at home, he’s taking [until Nov. 20] in the region that, in the long run, is really going to be the most critical strategic relationship for the US.”
On this trip, Obama will visit another place, in addition to Alaska, for the first time: China. His emphasis will be on forging what the White House calls a “cooperative and comprehensive” relationship with China. To the extent that causes him to play down human rights issues, he risks feeding the perception – which started this summer with his slow reaction to postelection repression in Iran – that Obama is a foreign-policy realist fixed on big-picture geopolitical goals.
“The president is going to have some pressure to articulate what his position is on human rights and democracy and Tibet,” Mr. Green says. “He chose in October not to see the Dalai Lama [in Washington], and he’s the first president to have done that since 1991.”