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Back from Asia, Obama weighs strategic partnerships, China's economic muscle

Obama's stops in India and Indonesia balanced security with economic pressures. But back-to-back global summits in Japan and South Korea underscored the administration’s weaker hand with China.

By Correspondent / November 15, 2010

President Obama visits the Great Buddha of Kamakura with Michiko Sato, temple director, and Takao Sato, the 15th chief monk of the temple, at Kotokuin Temple in Kamakura, Japan, Sunday, Nov. 14.

Charles Dharapak/AP Photo

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New Delhi

Like many sporting contests, President Obama’s just-concluded four-nation Asian tour was a game of two halves.

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Stops in India and Indonesia were charm offensives that yielded goodwill, commercial deals, and progress on security cooperation. But the latter half of the trip – back-to-back global summits in Japan and South Korea – ran into strong economic headwinds that underscored the administration’s weaker hand in a region that’s increasingly bound to China, its largest economy. A stalled trade treaty in South Korea also proved a major disappointment.

Many observers noted that China was the "elephant in the room" on Obama’s tour, conspicuous by its absence from his schedule. While Obama was keen to push a broad agenda on his stops, there was a strong emphasis on security ties, which chimes with rising suspicions in the region over Chinese territorial claims in the South China Sea.

In Japan, which is sparring with China and Russia over niggling territorial disputes, Prime Minister Naoto Kan praised Obama for “constantly standing by Japan’s side.” In turn, Obama described the US-Japan alliance as a cornerstone of regional security. Analysts said Obama’s public show of support was intended to remind China that the US is still militarily engaged in Northeast Asia, despite its economic pains at home and a grueling fight in Afghanistan.

“There is no doubt that Obama had China in mind, that he wanted to send a signal that Japan is a very important ally, and that the US could use its position in Asia, through Japan, to counterbalance China,” says Koichi Nakano, a professor of political science at Sophia University in Tokyo.

Flattery and US intentions

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