Commentary: Obama heads to Asia to 'rebalance'

Special to McClatchy NewspapersNovember 17, 2012 

Two days before President Obama was to fly to Asia on his first foreign trip since his re-election, his top security aide Thomas Donilon said that U.S. foreign security and economic policy was being “rebalanced” towards Asia.

“His decision to travel to Asia so soon after his re-election speaks to the importance that he places on the region and its centrality to so many of our national security interests and priorities,” said National Security Advisor Donilon in a speech at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.

The trip provides a sharp shift of attention from the Middle East which was the focus of Obama’s first overseas trip as president in 2009, seeking friendlier ties to Egypt, Turkey and other countries in the region in the wake of the Iraq War. On that visit Obama urged rulers to allow people to select their own leaders. That effort led to revolutions in Egypt, Tunisia, Libya, Syria and Yemen; tens of thousands died; heads of state toppled; and the United States incapable of preventing the rise of anti-American Islamist movements.

In returning to Asia – in particular to Southeast Asia, the second Obama administration is touching base with close friends who prospered greatly in the 1980s and 1990s under the U.S. military umbrella — Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia, Singapore and even Vietnam.

In recent years that region felt abandoned by the United States as China increasingly flexed its giant economic and military power.

Obama intends to reassure the 10 smaller nations in ASEAN – the Association of Southeast Asian Nations – that the United States will not allow China to seize control of the South China Sea and its small islands and potential oil wealth.

“In less than 48 hours, President Obama will embark on his first foreign trip since his re-election,” Donilon said. “He’ll travel to Thailand, make a historic visit to Burma and conclude his trip in Cambodia for the East Asia Summit.”

Donilon said that Obama would push for greater human rights in Burma and Thailand but did not include Cambodia where a strongman – Hun Sen -- has ruled for more than 25 years by crushing the opposition and dominating the press. Cambodia is under the sway of China, its major trading partner, and last year blocked any mention of the South China Sea issue in the ASEAN final communiqué.

“The president will address a broad set of issues of concern to the Asia-Pacific region, from maritime security to law enforcement to disaster response to humanitarian assistance, development, infectious diseases, education, food security and energy,” said Donilon. “Invariably, the leaders will also address problems caused by competing sovereignty claims in the South China Sea” and will call for “peaceful resolution of disputes, unimpeded lawful commerce, freedom of navigation and rejection of the threat or use of force or economic coercion to settle disagreements.”

China has clashed with Vietnam and the Philippines over ownership of the isolated and largely uninhabited Spratly and Paracel Islands and surrounding waters which are also claimed by Taiwan, Malaysia, and Brunei. Although these islands lie 700 miles from China and only 100 miles from the Philippines, China claims what is commonly called “the cows tongue” – a vast swathe of sea shaped like a tongue that reaches close to the shores of the other claimant nations.

The South China Sea is also a vital navigation route between Japan and the Middle East.

China has sought to resolve claims in bilateral meetings with each of its smaller neighbors. But they have sought a regional meeting with U.S. backing that could dilute Chinese power. Some of the region’s small countries are also, Donilon implied, happy to see the U.S. return to the region as a protector against Chinese threats.

“By 2020, we will position... 60 percent of our Naval fleet in the Pacific and throughout Southeast Asia and Oceania -- we’ll continue to develop maritime security and law enforcement partnerships and a presence that supports unimpeded commerce and freedom of navigation,” said Donilon.

“The United States is a Pacific power whose interests are inextricably linked ...with Asia’s economic security and political order,” he added. He noted that U.S. troops are being sent to Australia and the United States is increasing economic and security ties to Japan and South Korea.

Asian security and economic growth “requires a stabilizing American presence” that flows from “the demand for U.S. leadership from nations across the region,” said Donilon.

Refering obliquely to China Donilon said: “We aspire to see a region where the rise of new powers occurs peacefully...”

While China was labled a competitor – “the U.S.-China relationship ...has elements of both cooperation and competition” -- India got a warm hug from the Obama administration.

“We see India as a strategic partner for the 21st century, and as such, we welcome India’s efforts to look east and play a larger role in Asia, including in the Indian Ocean,” Donilon said.


Ben Barber has written about the developing world since 1980 for Newsday, the London Observer, the Christian Science Monitor,, Foreign Affairs, the Washington Times and USA TODAY. From 2003 to August, 2010, he was senior writer at the U.S. foreign aid agency. His photojournalism book — GROUNDTRUTH: The Third World at Work at play and at war — is to be published in 2012 by He can be reached at

McClatchy Newspapers did not subsidize the writing of this column; the opinions are those of the writer and do not necessarily represent the views of McClatchy Newspapers or its editors.

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