Historians may one day identify President Obama’s term in office as a period when he solidly turned America’s attention to Asia and the Pacific Rim — one of his highest priorities.
President Obama has argued that it is this part of the world — more than Europe and the Middle East — that’s most vital to America’s economic future. His recent opening remarks at the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, or ASEAN — 10 diverse countries that form an alliance with the U.S. — underscored the region as a high priority for the administration.
“ASEAN is the key to the U.S. rebalance to Asia,” the president said during his opening remarks at the summit in Laos. Obama has now made 11 trips to Asia.
The member countries — Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar (formerly Burma), the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam — are relatively small nations thousands of miles away from the U.S.
However, the nations’ represent 600 million people, several of the fastest growing economies in the world and one of the biggest markets for American investment and exports, according to the White House.
Many of the member nations are also part of the Trans Pacific Partnership, a sweeping trade deal with 12 Pacific Rim nations that Obama has urged Congress to ratify. The Asian nations are also a pivotal part of a policy push and alliance the president has spent years cultivating.
The big reason for Obama’s focus on the region is the huge rise of China economically and as a military power.
Several of the ASEAN member nations are involved in territorial disputes with China. The U.S. is also worried about what’s happening in the South China Sea and China’s attempts to restrict ships’ free movement through those waters.
China is leery of all this talk about “pivoting,” to Asia.
That may be why President Obama’s arrival for the G-20 summit in Hangzhou, China was so awkward at best, and such a stunning snub at worse.
No steps arrived for Obama to descend from AF1 on the traditional red carpet. He exited the rear door most often used when arriving in hostile environments.
Asked about all the talk of a snub by the Chinese, Obama said, “Yes, I think that it is overblown.”
The U.S. and China did have a moment of solidarity when both formally joined the Paris climate accords, the global agreement to reduce carbon emissions.
The world’s two largest economies and polluters are united toward a common goal, encouraging the world to follow their lead in committing to combating climate change — another of President Obama’s highest priorities while in office.
He later became the first sitting U.S. resident to visit Laos, a nation which has been called “the most heavily bombed country on the planet,” after it was pummeled by a secret U.S. military campaign to cutoff enemy supply lines during the Vietnam war. Untold numbers of still buried bombs and bomb fragments still kill and maim unsuspecting victims, especially children.
President Obama pledged $90 million dollars over the next three years as part of a joint effort with the Laotian government to clear millions of unexploded U.S. bombs.
Still, Obama’s final tour of the ASEAN nations before leaving office faced several distractions and hurdles.
The vulgar insult by the Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, anticipating criticism from Obama because of the southeast Asian leader’s alleged deadly crackdown on drug traffickers, led to a high level meeting with a very important member of the alliance being canceled at a critical moment.
The Philippines had just won a significant case against China about which nation has a right to what territory in the highly contentious South China Sea.
The U.S. is trying to judge how reliable an ally the “colorful,” Duterte, a newly elected leader, will be. That why Duterte’s outburst was more than just a poor choice of words.
In the end, Duterte apologized.
Later, the two leaders had a “brief discussion” and exchanged “pleasantries,” at another summit event, White House officials said, noting the core relationships between the two nations had not been impacted.
Duterte was a no show the next day of the summit. The reason given for his absence: a migraine headache.
Through it all, White House officials, as always, have tried to keep the focus on what matters most to the president.
In that regard, the Trans Pacific Partnership’s fate loomed large.
The massive trade deal includes many of the nations gathered here in Laos. The accord between the U.S. and 11 other countries represents 40 percent of the world’s GDP, sets the rules for trade and commerce and confronts China’s economic influence.
However, President Obama faces a daunting task getting the Republican controlled Congress to approve it in his remaining days in office. In Laos, Obama predicted victory during the lame duck session without explaining how exactly he thought that would happen.
Even if he’s successful, both Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton and Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump oppose the deal.
Obama also acknowledged there grave concerns in the Pacific Rim region about whether the next president will keep the focused trained in this direction.
It’s a tough position for relatively small southeast Asian nations potentially caught between the U.S. and China on this matter.
It’s also a tough position for Obama who, in order to make his trip to Asia a success and complete the rebalance to that region, has quite a bit of work to do when he gets back to home.