Obama aims to boost 'Asia pivot' policy with trip abroad

At an APEC summit in China next week, Obama is expected to underscore the importance of establishing a vast Asia-Pacific trade and investment community, including the 12-nation Trans-Pacific partnership bogged down in negotiations.

Kevin Lamarque/REUTERS
President Obama meets with China's President Xi Jinping at the G20 Summit in St. Petersburg in 2013. They'll meet again next week at the APEC summit in Beijing.

President Obama’s week-long trip to Asia offers him the opportunity to reinvigorate and reorient his presidency’s rebalancing of American interests to the Asia-Pacific – at a time when many in the region were wondering if the vaunted “Asia pivot” was largely rhetoric but little action.

Mr. Obama will meet with Chinese President Xi Jinping in Beijing, where he heads Monday to attend an APEC summit of Asia-Pacific leaders. With Mr. Xi and at subsequent stops in Myanmar and Australia, the president will highlight human rights issues and US concerns about signs of weakening respect for the rule of law, from the economic arena to provocative actions challenging the region’s maritime boundaries.

But mostly Obama will make this trip about America’s economic stakes in the region. In addition to the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) Forum, the president will attend an East Asia Summit and US-ASEAN summit in Myanmar, and a G20 leaders meeting in Brisbane, Australia. 

In particular, he’s expected to underscore the importance for the US of establishing a vast Asia-Pacific trade and investment community – the first phase of which would be the 12-nation Trans-Pacific partnership (TPP) that has been bogged down in tough negotiations.

The TPP is “a top priority for the United States” and an “integral part of our Asia Pacific rebalance strategy,” said National Security Adviser Susan Rice, briefing the press Friday on Obama’s trip.

The trip will also allow a president who was whipsawed by the midterm elections to escape the reduced horizons he faces on the domestic political scene.

What the post-drubbing Asian foray offers, some regional analysts says, is an opportunity to get past the musings over lame-duck status at home and demonstrate to key US allies and interlocutors – including China – that the US remains focused on Asia.

“The rebalance or the pivot to Asia…has very high support” in Asia, but there are “real questions about implementation,” says Michael Green, a former Bush administration Asia official who is now senior vice president for Asia at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington.

The midterm election results, he adds, “may reinforce those concerns, from New Zealand to China, whether the administration has the wherewithal to actually follow through on the pivot or rebalance as advertised.”

China actually may have taken some solace in Washington’s preoccupation over recent months with other international crises, others say – but will be attentive now to what Obama’s visit augurs for US relations with Asia over the rest of his term.

“I do think the Chinese have concluded that Obama’s attention to ISIS, to Ukraine, and to some extent to Ebola, is taking him away from the rebalance to Asia,” says Douglas Paal, Asia Program director at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington. “The Chinese are always relieved,” he adds, “when we’re preoccupied somewhere else.”

Other powers in the region that do not want to see a waning of US power, particularly in the era of a rising China, are heartened by Obama’s week-long trip to Asia and what they believe it says about both Obama and the US in the region.

“I know these arguments that the US is distracted from its interests in Asia” and that American power is receding, “but we have strong confidence that the US will keep up the effort on the pivot to Asia,” says Kenichiro Sasae, Japan’s ambassador to the US.

As an unrivaled global power the US has to take an interest in all global challenges and crises, “but the trend to greater US involvement in Asia is not a matter of two or three years,” Ambassador Sasae says. “It’s an effort that goes beyond a military focus,” he adds, to include “the full spectrum of American soft power” ranging from economic cooperation to advocacy for human rights and rule of law advances, he says.   

In particular, Obama has an opportunity to demonstrate to Xi that the US is not distracted and remains fully engaged in Asia, Mr. Paal says. But he adds that Obama must do that in a way that is firm and dispels notions of waning presidential power but which does not simply feed China’s suspicion that Obama’s “rebalance” is really about containing China.

Paal, who was in Beijing last week, says Chinese officials “will watch this summit very closely” for clues to measuring up Obama’s approach with China over the coming two years. “If he comes in tough” and simply confronts Xi with US objections to Chinese actions, “it will put a period on relations for this presidency,” he says.

On the other hand, he says the “post-election atmosphere” can actually be a boon to Obama, for example on the issue of trade expansion in Asia, where the president arguably can count on stronger Republican than Democratic support.

The backdrop of a more Republican Congress “helps Obama be able to talk to the Chinese” on issues like trade, Paal says. “It’s an empowerment.”

Perhaps the biggest test for Obama during a week-long trip will be setting the region straight on just what the US rebalance to Asia means – and the goals he intends to reach in the coming two years.

Mr. Green at CSIS acknowledges it’s been a “tough balancing act” because much of what the US has done has caused such differing reactions. US attention to other global crises leads to the impression among the Chinese and others “that the US has lost interest in Asia,’ he says. But if Obama makes a point of underscoring US security commitments in Asia, he adds, the Chinese will react by “calling it containment.”

Noting that Obama plans to give what the White House calls a “major speech” in Brisbane on the US commitment to Asia, Green says the whole region will be attuned to how the president frames – and perhaps resets – his pivot to Asia.

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