Welcomed by U.S. friend Thailand and greeted with rock star status during a historic visit to Myanmar, President Barack Obama felt the love on much of his three-nation tour of Southeast Asia. The tour was overshadowed, though, by violence in the Middle East, and the verdict is still out on whether he achieved tangible results in a region that’s often felt neglected by Washington.
A “Pivot to Asia” was the central theme of Obama’s trip, a signal of the administration’s planned second-term emphasis on improved relations with countries that share the region with an increasingly assertive China. He was returning to Washington early Wednesday.
Yet as Obama and key administration officials tried to devote quality time and attention to Asia during their stops in Thailand, Myanmar and Cambodia – the latter two hosting a U.S. president for the first time – he found himself pivoting back to the Middle East and a violent confrontation between Israel and Palestinian militants in Gaza, as well as a looming fiscal crisis at home that could adversely impact Asia and the rest of the world.
Obama on Tuesday dispatched Secretary of State Hillary Clinton from Asia directly to the Middle East for talks with Israeli and Arab leaders, a potentially disquieting sign for what Asian leaders can expect in Obama’s second term.
“Having Clinton fly directly from Asia to the fires in the Middle East reminds Asia that the conflict in Gaza and Middle East strife in general is like a jealous lover, always calling the U.S. high-level political focus away from Asia,” said Ernest Bower, chair of Southeast Asia studies for the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.
Administration officials on the trip insisted that the focus on the Middle East doesn’t mean the White House is putting Asia on the back burner.
“At the risk of having a double metaphor with a pivot, we believe that the United States can walk and chew gum at the same time,” Ben Rhodes, deputy national security advisor for strategic communications, told reporters Tuesday in Phnom Penh, Cambodia.
“The pivot, in many respects, reflects not just the time that we’re spending here – which is significant – but it’s also resource allocation,” he said. “And so much of our resources the last 10 years have been in Iraq, principally, and then Afghanistan. And those resources have been dramatically reduced . . . and it allows us to do things like prioritize our security presence in this region; prioritize our economic engagement in this region; and prioritize our support for democracy and human rights in this region.”
But Clinton’s sudden departure to the Middle East highlighted another concern within Asia: While most in the region welcome the stability of dealing with Obama for four more years, they are nervously watching who will replace Clinton and outgoing Defense Secretary Leon Panetta. Both Clinton and Panetta are staunch advocates of the administration’s “Asia Pivot” policy.
“Asians generally want continuity,” Bower said. “They’re worried that (United Nations Ambassador) Susan Rice would be more Middle East focused. (Massachusetts Sen.) John Kerry would by OK because he’s a Vietnam veteran familiar with the region, and (former Nebraska Republican Sen.) Chuck Hagel was a member of the Senate Foreign Affairs Committee and a member of the Asia subcommittee.”
Rice, Kerry and Hagel have been among the names mentioned as possible nominees to replace Clinton.
The Middle East wasn’t the only issue that followed Obama to Asia. The “fiscal cliff” – a potential year-end whammy of tax increases and spending cuts that could affect the U.S. and world economy if Congress and the White House don’t reach a deficit reduction agreement deal by the new year – dogged Obama on his tour. Between meetings and events in Asia, Obama made fiscal cliff-related calls to investor Warren Buffet and JPMorgan Chase CEO Jamie Dimon.
Obama apparently even talked fiscal cliff with a monk while touring a temple in Thailand over the weekend.
“Yes,” the president told the monk, “we’re working on this budget, we’re going to need a lot of prayers for that.”
Obama appeared to make little headway on economic or regional issues at the East Asia Summit, especially on tensions between Japan, The Philippines and Vietnam with China over the South China Sea.
“I think he (Obama) generally accomplished what he sought to do, although the summit was kind of a disaster, in that it resolved nothing and ended in acrimony,” said Joshua Kurlantzick, a Southeast Asia fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. “I don’t think he allayed any of China’s concerns, nor did China allay any of the countries’ in the region’s concerns. It’s a stalemate right now . . . and it’s unlikely China’s going to give way on the (South China Sea).”