Obama's Asia tour kicks off at critical time on home front

McClatchy NewspapersNovember 6, 2009 

A Beijing museum displays a bronze effigy of Barack Obama that bursts into flames. The sculptor, Liu Bolin, wanted to illustrate how "hot" the president is.

ELIZABETH DALZIEL / AP

WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama will leave the country for a four-nation tour of Asia starting Thursday despite a host of domestic concerns, including the massacre at Fort Hood, a sharply rising jobless rate, the health care debate shifting to the Senate and his Afghanistan troop decision still pending.

He planned his Nov. 12-19 trip around the annual Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation meeting in Singapore, but added stops in Japan, China and South Korea. The itinerary reflects the growing importance of East Asia — especially China — to everything from financing U.S. debt and powering the global economic recovery to climate change, disease control, and containing nuclear threats from North Korea and Iran.

Asia's importance in global affairs rose over the past decade as U.S. foreign policy was dominated by the war on terror, and as U.S. domestic spending and borrowing from foreign countries spiraled.

"These phenomena have persuaded many Asians that the U.S. is overextended and distracted" and a declining power, said Jeff Bader, the National Security Council's senior director for East Asian Affairs.

Obama intends to use his trip to counter those doubts.

"I think it will be vividly clear for the peoples of Asia that the U.S. is here to stay in Asia," Bader said. " . . . The U.S. will be a player and participant on the ground floor, not a distant spectator."

China, the world's most populous nation with 1.3 billion people — and the most important one on this trip — holds more U.S. debt than any other country. Japan, a U.S. security ally, is the second-largest U.S. creditor.

"Look at the large picture of things, of what places matter to the United States, think about it in terms of the economic weight of Asia these days, of where the world's population lives, of where the rising powers are: all of that is taking place in Asia," said Daniel Sneider, associate director for research at Stanford University's Shorenstein Asia-Pacific Research Center.

"These are the economies that are going to drive the world economy increasingly. This is the dynamic part of the world. And our future as a nation is tied heavily in every respect to that part of the world."

Obama won't visit India, the other rising Asian power, or Indonesia, the world's largest Muslim-majority nation, where he spent part of his childhood. He's planning a separate, more personal trip later to Indonesia, and India will be the first nation he honors with a state dinner at the White House, on Nov. 24, days after his return.

The Asia venture will bring to 20 the number of countries that Obama has visited in his first year in office, a new presidential record.

It also will come weeks before an international gathering in Copenhagen, Denmark, to seek a global treaty to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

The U.S. hasn't committed itself to caps on emissions that cause global warming and so isn't in a position to browbeat China, a fast-rising global economic power and the world's top polluter, into agreeing to any. Obama may try to allay criticism of inaction by announcing joint conservation and alternative energy projects with Asian partners.

Obama enjoys high popularity in Japan, China and South Korea, and he hopes that will buy him goodwill despite policy disagreements and a growing desire in the region to reduce the U.S. military footprint in Asia, more than six decades after the end of World War II.

The White House plans several speeches and news conferences — including opportunities for Obama to interact with Chinese citizens, probably in a town-hall meeting. Asian policy analysts expect no major advances, however, on trade or economics, and no major breakthroughs on climate change or North Korea.

Here's a look at each stop:

_ Japan. In Tokyo, Obama will reaffirm Japan's status as key regional security ally and could use a speech to outline his Asia policy.

He'll seek to ease Japanese sensitivities about whether the U.S. now cares more about China. Still, the Obama administration is off to an awkward start with the new Japanese government led by Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama, who came to power in September on populist promises, including that the Japanese must have more say over U.S. military bases there.

Despite an earlier agreement that the U.S. would close the Futenma base on Okinawa, shift thousands of Marines there to Guam, and relocate the airfield to another spot on Okinawa, some Japanese now want all U.S. troops out, and Hatoyama is delaying a decision. Japan's new government also is poised to end refueling support in the Indian Ocean for the U.S. mission in Afghanistan.

_ Singapore. The APEC conference is a chance for the U.S. to re-engage on Asian trade. "There are more than 70 free trade arrangements in Asia right now, and the U.S. is only really involved in a very small handful," said Michael Green, a senior director for Asian affairs at the National Security Council under President George W. Bush, and now with the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a center-right policy organization. However, Green said, the U.S. isn't ready to bring new agreements to the table.

Also under the microscope: Any contact between Obama and the leaders of Myanmar, in light of Obama's new posture of limited re-engagement with the repressive regime while maintaining sanctions against it.

_ China. Obama and Chinese officials have a long list of topics to discuss: the economy, Afghanistan and Pakistan, arms control, North Korea and Iran, climate change and clean energy, as well as the thornier issues of human rights, democracy, religious freedom, the Dalai Lama, the rule of law and censorship in China.

The U.S. wants China to move toward a market-based value for its currency, and Obama has called for Americans to save more and China to consume more and rely less on exports.

"None of the great issues of the day can be addressed without Chinese cooperation," Bader said.

Obama will meet in Beijing with President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao, visit the Forbidden City and the Great Wall, and attend a state dinner and some cultural performances.

Shanghai is hosting the 2010 World Expo, where there's a U.S. exhibit, and some hope that Obama will squeeze in a visit there.

U.S. business concerns include software piracy, counterfeiting, consumer safety, defective or contaminated products, and loss of American jobs and manufacturing.

For the Chinese, Obama's tariffs on their tire exports raise questions about his commitment to free trade.

The U.S. and China agree that North Korea must not be allowed to become a nuclear power, but they differ on how to manage the threat. China is North Korea's most important ally, and it convinced Pyongyang to consider resuming six-party talks if U.S. officials would meet bilaterally with the North Koreans. The U.S., however, sees North Korea's commitment as questionable, and progress on this issue appears unlikely during Obama's visit.

_ South Korea. Congress hasn't ratified the Korea-U.S. Free Trade agreement reached during the Bush administration, and many Democrats want changes to it. It would be the biggest trade liberalization since the 1993 North-American Free Trade Agreement, but Congress isn't likely to take it up at least until it finishes with health care.

Still, Obama should find a friendly audience in Seoul. He'll meet with President Lee Myung-bak, assure South Koreans of the U.S. security commitment, talk about North Korea and visit with U.S. troops before heading home.

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