Obama seeks to reassure Asia of US interest

President Obama's nine-day trip to Asia seeks to reassure America’s Asian allies and partners that the US is committed to strengthening its economic and security ties to the region.

J. David Ake/AP
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and U.S. Ambassador to APEC Kurt Tong confer before the start of an APEC ministerial meeting at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit Friday, Nov. 11, 2011, in Honolulu.

With America’s military presence in Iraq winding down by the end of the year yet with jobs dominating the domestic political picture, President Obama is redirecting his attention to the world’s rising economic power house – Asia – with a nine-day trip to the East.

Beginning Saturday the president will host Asia-Pacific leaders in Hawaii – where trade and economic development will be a key topic – before heading to Australia and Indonesia.

The trip’s two-fold purpose: reassure America’s Asian allies and partners that the US is committed to strengthening its economic and security ties to the region, while messaging the American public (and voters) that America’s economic future depends in large part on its ties to the vibrant and fast-growing Asian economies.

Since taking office, Obama has repeated that this will be America’s “Pacific century.” But until now the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, tumult in the Middle East, and even the threat of a financial meltdown in Europe have kept the administration’s attention to Asia sporadic.

But in a speech at the East-West Center in Honolulu Thursday, in the run-up to the weekend’s APEC summit, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton insisted that the administration is turning its attention to Asia in earnest.

Noting that world events have “lined up in a way that helps make this possible, Secretary Clinton pointed to Iraq and Afghanistan.

“After a decade in which we invested immense resources in those two theaters,” she said, “we have reached a pivot point.”

“We now can redirect some of those investments to opportunities and obligations elsewhere,” she added, “And Asia stands out as a region where opportunities abound.”

But is Obama’s Asia focus coming a bit late and leaving the US playing a game of catch-up? Some US foreign policy experts who have visited the region recently say leaders there wonder if the US, despite Obama’s “Asia century” rhetoric, is really intent on building up its Asia presence.

“All the countries in Asia can see China’s weight and influence growing in their everyday life, and their question to America is, ‘What are you doing to respond to that, what is your strategy?’” says James Lindsay, director of studies at the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington. “They wonder if America is in fact in retreat.”

Clearly Clinton has heard some of these same rumblings coming out of Asia, because she addressed the doubters of America’s staying power head-on in her East-West Center speech.

“To those in Asia who wonder whether the United States is really here to stay, if we can make and keep credible strategic and economic commitments and back them up with action, the answer is: Yes, we can, and yes, we will.”

Saying the US will step up its involvement in Asia “because we must,” she noted that “in the 21st century, the world’s strategic and economic center of gravity will be the Asia-Pacific, from the Indian subcontinent to the Western shores of the Americas.”

Yet even as Clinton seems focused on convincing Asian countries – including an ever-more-powerful China – that the US is around to stay, the emphasis at the White House appeared to be on convincing Americans that Obama’s long sojourn in Asia and his focus on the region more broadly have at their core a strategy for maintaining and expanding US economic power, and for creating jobs.

“When the American people see the president traveling in the Asia-Pacific, they will see him advocating for US jobs and US businesses,” said Ben Rhodes, deputy national security adviser for strategic communications, in a briefing with reporters this week. “He will be trying to open new markets, and he will be trying to achieve new export initiatives.”

Underscoring just how important Obama sees Asia in America’s economic prosperity, Mr. Rhodes noted that the president’s goal of doubling US exports by 2015 relies substantially on boosting US business to the Asia-Pacific region, which accounts for over half of the world’s gross domestic product, and over 40 percent of world trade.

“Nearly all of the efforts we’re going to be making towards that export goal,” he said, “take place in this part of the world.”  

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