Obama puts Asia on his agenda. Will it make a difference?

Obama holds meetings with Asian leaders at UN on economic and security issues. But some analysts say he is doing no better than his predecessors at resolving the region's challenges.

Jason Reed/Reuters
China's Premier Wen Jiabao (l.) speaks alongside President Obama before their bilateral meeting at the United Nations in New York, on September 23.

President Obama, in a series of meetings at the United Nations, has sought this week to underscore his administration’s view of Asia as increasingly important to the US economy and national security.

On Friday Mr. Obama hosted a lunch for leaders of the 10-nation ASEAN organization of Southeast Asian countries, where he signaled a determination to strengthen the US security partnership with the region – especially as it confronts an increasingly assertive China.

Trade with the region’s growing economies was also on the agenda, with Obama telling the leaders that US trade with their countries is crucial to millions of American jobs.

A day earlier Obama held a two-hour meeting with Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao, where he focused on economic issues. In particular – and with one eye on pending congressional action – the president zeroed in on US demands for a revaluation of the Chinese currency. Economists estimate that the Chinese renminbi is kept artificially weak by as much as a quarter of its value, a policy that favors Chinese exports but which some US officials (and members of Congress) say costs the US exports and jobs.

It’s an open question, however, whether the Obama administration is really focusing more on Asia than previous administrations did, some Asia analysts say, adding that in any case the administration’s approach so far is not any more successful at resolving some of the region’s most serious challenges.

“This idea that ‘the US is back in Asia’ is a feature of the administration’s script, part of their theme that President Bush had walked away from Asia, but that’s a fallacy,” says Bruce Klingner, a North Asia expert at the Heritage Foundation in Washington. “What can be said is that what they are doing hasn’t had the effect of boosting relations with China, and it hasn’t resolved some of the ongoing problems in the region like Burma or North Korea.”

Both Obama and Mr. Wen had only positive words to say about US-China relations when they came out of their meeting Thursday. Obama emphasized the “cooperation and mutual respect” between the two powers, insisting that the world “looks to the relationship … as a critical ingredient on a whole range of security issues.”

Wen said that “our common interests far outweigh our differences” – a theme Chinese leaders emphasized when they met with senior US officials in Beijing earlier this week. China has been irritated by a number of US actions in recent months – US military exercises with South Korea off the Chinese coast, and US contacts with the Dalai Lama – but Wen said he was confident any “differences “ could be “well-resolved through dialogue and cooperation.”

Obama appeared to be motivated by domestic political ramifications in pursuing the currency issue at such length. Jeffrey Bader, the National Security Council’s senior director for Asia, told reporters after the meeting that the two leaders discussed “the impact and politics” of the issue.

“Whether this lengthy discussion of currency issues reflects Obama’s Congressional and electoral concerns is unclear,” says Mr. Klingner. “But it clearly is a big issue in US-China relations.”

The ASEAN summit – the second formal meeting between the US and Southeast Asian countries – is seen as an important step towards institutionalized dialogue between the two. But the fact the meeting did not include the president of Indonesia, the organization’s largest member, is also a reminder of the distance to go to make the contact an integral part of US multilateral diplomacy.

Indonesian officials have said their president, Susilio Bambang Yudoyono, was constrained by domestic affairs from making the trip to New York. But probably the more crucial factor is Indonesia’s pique at having seen Obama postpone travel to the country (where he spent a portion of his childhood) no less than three times, some Asia analysts say.

Obama has now rescheduled a visit to Indonesia for November. And he announced at Friday’s summit that he has accepted ASEAN’s invitation to join its East Asia summit in Jakarta next year.

The Southeast Asian countries are looking to the US for a shoulder to lean upon as some of them face territorial disputes with China, in particular in the South China Sea. Obama took up another territorial row in the region – this one pitting Japan against China – when he met with Japanese Prime Minister Kan on Thursday. Tensions between China and Japan have risen over a collision earlier this month between a Chinese fishing boat and Japanese naval ships off the coast of uninhabited islands claimed by both countries.

Klinger says China is dredging up old grievances to employ assertive tactics and demonstrate its rising power, but he says the approach is backfiring because it is only making China’s neighbors more wary and turning them towards the US.

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