President Barack Obama begins a three-country tour to Asia on Sunday to work on deepening ties to the region, particularly through a trade pact, although his party's losses in last week's midterm election may cast a shadow over his efforts, experts say.
Obama will make stops in China, Myanmar and Australia on his nine-day trip to attend the APEC (Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation) and G20 summits. He'll meet with China's president and Myanmar dissident leader Aung San Suu Kyi, as well as with the prime ministers of Indonesia and Australia.
"The main goal is to advance U.S. engagement in Asia and the Pacific. A key part of this is economic," said Ben Rhodes, White House deputy national security adviser for strategic communication. "Our biggest trade relationships and greatest export growth will come in emerging markets."
James Thurber, director of the Center for Congressional & Presidential Studies at American University in Washington, noted: "I think the president believes that a trade deal will define his legacy."
But the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade pact, or TPP — an 11-country agreement that doesn't include China — hasn't been completed, and it isn't likely to be done during Obama's visit, Reuters reported. China isn't part of the TPP talks, but it is open to joining.
"There's no country in the region, given China's rise ... who isn't essentially a strong supporter of America remaining strategically engaged in the region," Russell Trood, an adjunct professor of U.S. studies at the University of Sydney in Australia, told Reuters. "And yet when you ask them to stand up and nail their colors to the masthead, as it were, few are prepared to do it to the degree which Washington would no doubt be reassured."
Obama will also have to balance calls to take China to task for human rights violations and cybertheft, with the need to have Beijing's backing for challenges elsewhere: ongoing efforts to deny Iran a nuclear weapon, help with the fight against the spread of the deadly Ebola virus and effective handling of the unpredictable behavior of North Korea, which is heavily reliant on China's economic and political support. (Obama's trip comes a day after Pyongyang released the last two Americans imprisoned in the north.)
Obama's efforts may be undercut, too, by his party's losses at the polls last week, including Republicans' taking control of the Senate and seizing their biggest majority in the House of Representatives in more than 60 years.
"This is going to be a tough trip for the president," Ernest Bower, an Asia expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, said during a recent press briefing.
"They'll (Asian leaders) be trying to discern whether he has the commitment and political capital to follow through."