Just days after the midterm elections, President Barack Obama will fly to Asia for a four-country diplomatic tour, which is bound to be a relief in some ways.
The president will leave behind the bruising partisan politics of the domestic arena for the friendly turf of India, Indonesia, South Korea and Japan. At the same time, in his role as U.S. diplomat-in-chief, Obama wields immense power, even as he likely loses some clout at home with changes in Congress.
It is likely to be a good time to get out of Dodge — some conservative critics have even portrayed the trip as a flight to avoid awkward questions about Democratic election losses. But most analysts say the trek to Asia is important and, if anything, overdue.
“The agenda that the president has in front of him is a sensible one, all the more so, arguably, to show that the leader of the United States is still a strong, functioning and credible presence, even with some presumed domestic political setbacks,” said Nicholas Eberstadt, a politics and economy scholar at the conservative American Enterprise Institute.
It is also “a very good time for a president of the United States to reassure allies and friends, given some of the actions and anxiety and concern about Chinese behavior this last year,” he said.
The president’s itinerary includes two major international summits: The annual 21-nation Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) forum in Yokohama, Japan, and the G-20 meeting of finance ministers and central bank governors from the world’s 20 wealthiest nations in Seoul, South Korea. APEC is always scheduled in November — after U.S. voting on election years to ensure U.S. participation. The U.S. president has attended all but two APEC summits since 1993, when President Bill Clinton added the meeting to the list of annual economic discussions. Vice President Al Gore stood in for Clinton in 1995 and 1998.
Priority number one
The United States remains the largest economy on the planet, so of course you want to make it possible for the U.S. president to be there,” said Donald Emmerson, director of the Southeast Asia Forum at Stanford University. “The most consequential for the globe is what happens in Seoul. … Rebalancing the global economy is probably the number one priority.”
About half of the G20 members are from the Pacific Rim region — including China, South Korea, Indonesia and Japan.
“There is an enormous amount at stake,” agreed Jonathan Pollack, a professor of Asian and Pacific Studies at the Naval War College in Newport, R.I. “These are not drive-bys. They are more than that. These are societies and leaders we need to be interacting with.”
Before the summits, Obama will pay his first visit to India, picking up where his predecessor President George W. Bush began to substantially expand ties. In addition to U.S. interests in the market — India’s population is projected to surpass that of China in the next 20 years — the U.S. has strategic interests in the country as a counterbalance to China and as a partner in the war on terrorism.
“And in India there is a lot of angst over the pullout date that Obama announced along with the surge (in Afghanistan),” said Walter Lohman, director of the Asian Studies Center at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank Washington D.C. think tank. “If we get out of Afghanistan before the job is done, they are going to be the ones on the front lines. They have a much bigger terrorism problem than we do and have for a long time.”
There is symbolic significance to Obama’s visit to India. In the simplest terms, the president needs to demonstrate that the South Asian country is equal in importance to China, where the president has already paid a visit.
Deals for India?
In addition to reassuring New Delhi that the U.S. is committed to the relationship, Obama’s trip may also be the moment to roll out tangible perks for New Delhi, such as announcing weapons sales or easing of trade restrictions.
Obama will also visit Indonesia, a country where he spent part of his childhood. The archipelago — which stretches about as far as the United States is wide — holds opportunities for the United States as a major consumer market, strategic military partner, ally in the war on terror and for its wealth of natural resources, to name a few. Potential on all these fronts has flourished over the last decade since Indonesia ousted military dictator Suharto and held democratic elections.
Obama is uniquely positioned to make progress with Jakarta, but putting his feet on the ground now is a diplomatic imperative, since he canceled two previously scheduled trips to Indonesia for domestic reasons (shepherding the health care package to a vote and responding to the Deepwater Horizon oil spill.)
“I think it’s really important that he’s making the trip… after a few false starts,” said the Heritage Foundation’s Lohman. “Indonesia is a big opportunity for the U.S. to cultivate a much deeper relationship. (But) it requires continual attention to show them that we are working on it, that we are interested.”
In parallel show of interest, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is also on a multi-country trip through Asia, with an ambitious agenda that spans Cambodia, Papua New Guinea, Australia and Guam.
Nudging China ...
These visits are significant for their content but also for the implicit message that they send to regional giant, China, which has in the last year taken a markedly more aggressive tone in economic and territorial disputes in the region.
“A rising China, and the dynamic it is producing, forces us to think about our role in Asia,” said Elizabeth Economy, director for Asia Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. “We suddenly have come to realize that our interests might become seriously challenged.”
One recent dust-up came over the summer when a Chinese official told a reporter that Beijing considers the South China Sea to be a “core national interest.” This choice of words -- normally reserved only for Tibet and Taiwan -- suggested that China considers its territorial claims over the vast body of water nonnegotiable. Five other southeast Asian countries — including Taiwan, which China considers its rightful territory -- have overlapping claims on the sea and oil that is thought to lie beneath. Chinese officials have not denied the comment nor the strategic shift that it seems to signal.
At a meeting of the regional security forum in Hanoi in July, Secretary of State Clinton for the first time effectively rejected China's claims to sovereignty over the sea, with the backing of 11 other nations. Still, the tension over the territory, its presumed resources and the key shipping lanes remains high.
In another recent incident, a collision in disputed waters between a Chinese fishing boat and a Japanese Coast Guard vessel blew up into a major diplomatic fracas, reviving a territorial dispute that the two sides agreed to shelve 30 years ago.
In one sense there is nothing unusual about Obama and Clinton visiting allies in the region, particularly after a period when the president was preoccupied with domestic concerns — from the BP oil spill to the midterm elections. But it is also a reminder to Beijing that it should not throw its weight around.
“There’s little doubt that the Chinese feel the U.S. has come roaring back into the region in a way they hadn’t anticipated, and not entirely in a way that they welcome,” Economy, of the Council on Foreign Relations, said of the trips.
The administration will be cautious, however, not to signal that it wants to isolate or contain China’s growth and prosperity. The U.S. economy and interests are far too enmeshed with China’s to launch a Cold War. President Obama will quietly meet with Chinese President Hu Jintao at the G20 meeting to attempt to ease strains over territory and currency. Hu is also expected to visit to Washington in early 2011.
The Sino-U.S. relationship cannot be ignored, but the effort to reconnect with others in the region is also critical, said Pollack of the Naval War College.
“It’s an underlying message President Obama has tried to present all along … to make a connection between Americans own prosperity and these (emerging) economies and societies,” he said.
As for winning public relations points, the economic case may be too abstract for the audience back home. But images from the trip may generate a patriotic glow, Pollack said.
“Even if the (United States) seems to be in this unbelievably foul mood, if you see the president being lionized in all these countries, it can’t hurt him and it can help him,” he said. “… It’s a reminder that he is the president of the United States … and a reminder of who we are as a country. … That can presumably play to his advantage.”
“But,” he added, “I think he’d trade that to get the unemployment rate down.”