Obama Visit to Asia Offers Dynamic Opportunity

By Charles E. Morrison

(Note: This commentary originally appeared in The Honolulu Advertiser on Nov. 8, 2009.)

This week President Obama begins his first trip to Asia as the U.S. head of state. His visit to Singapore for the annual APEC meeting of Asia-Pacific leaders and additional stops in Japan, China and South Korea offer an opportunity for the president to give further dynamism to America's relationships with this vital part of the world.

In visiting Asia, Mr. Obama has many assets to draw upon. Although his adult experience in Asia is relatively limited, he is the first U.S. president to have actually lived in the region and to have a genuine Asia-Pacific orientation from his earliest years. He is widely popular in the region, especially his boyhood home of Indonesia, where according to the Pew Global Attitudes Project, positive images of the United States climbed to 63 percent in 2009 from 37 percent last year.

Obama's way to the region has also been paved by two successful visits by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who in February chose Asia for her first overseas trip as the top U.S. diplomat, and in July stopped by a meeting of regional foreign ministers in Thailand, where she signed a Treaty of Amity and Cooperation with the ASEAN nations.

The president also inherited a quite successful Asia policy from his predecessor.  The new administration has added a few twists, expanding high level dialogues with China, opening a dialogue with Burma, and taking a more relaxed attitude, at least so far, toward North Korea. Human rights rhetoric has been toned down under Obama, but the basic parameters of U.S. Asia policy have remained the same.

The APEC meeting provides an opportunity for the president to meet again with some of the key world leaders he has already met twice this year at G-20 events, and to connect for the first time with others. The economy remains the number one item of the APEC agenda, with a need to successfully exit the temporary recovery packages now in place and to rebalance both government spending and trans-Pacific economic imbalances.  

Also in Singapore, the President will be having the first-ever summit of an American president with the heads of ASEAN, the Southeast Asian grouping that is now being heavily courted by China, Japan, India and Europe. A summit had been promised two years ago by President Bush, but never carried out.

The bilateral visits that comprise the rest of the Asia trip show respect for the three major economies of Northeast Asia – China, Japan, and South Korea – which collectively represent the most important part of the world for the economic and security future of the United States.

With these obligatory stops, Obama has had to put off a homecoming trip to Indonesia, where he spent several years as a child, but he has promised Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono that he will come on another occasion, when he can spend more time and bring his children will him.

In China, Japan and Korea, the administration wants to facilitate collaborative work in areas such as climate change, energy technology, educational policies and exchange, and economic support in Afghanistan and Pakistan. In all three countries, the foreign counterparts will be seeking clues to the future of U.S. trade policy, an area in which all have deep interest and concern, but which has not yet been clearly defined by the new U.S. administration.

Japan is the U.S.'s foremost ally in the region, but it also represents probably the most challenging stop for the president. The Hatoyama government is only two months old, and it is still going through growing pains in sorting out its policies and its relationship with the established bureaucracy. Quite understandably, the new government also wants to review policies it inherited from its predecessor and which it criticized during the campaign, including the agreements related to the future of U.S. military facilities in Okinawa.

The president can appreciate these political necessities and needs to be both respectful and show patience, but at the same time he will want to explain U.S. interests and encourage the Japanese to make their reviews expeditiously. What makes this stop especially tricky is that various factions, both in and out of government, will be trying to spin the U.S. positions in ways that favor their own domestic agendas.

In the case of China, Mr. Obama will be building on Economic and Strategic Dialogue that began in July. The main thrust of his administration's approach is to deepen Bush administration efforts to develop Sino-American cooperation on regional and global issues.  Obama will hope to advance progress in the weaker dimensions of the relationship, such as military-to-military dialogues, as well as reduce gaps in dealing with such problems as the nuclear programs of Iran and North Korea.

In Seoul, North Korea will dominate the discussions. The North Koreans sought to test the new administration early on with a series of provocations, including nuclear and missile tests, boasts of a long-denied uranium enrichment program, and the detention of two American journalists.

These crude tactics partly backfired, and North Korea has shifted toward a more friendly approach since President Clinton visited Pyongyang at the beginning of July to free the journalists. There have also been recent improvements in North-South Korean relations.  The two presidents need to talk about tactics, while strongly reaffirming their ultimate goal, the denuclearization of the North.

Despite the tricky elements, the overall tone of the trip is likely to be highly positive. Asian leaders are still sizing up the new U.S. president, and they clearly want to be in his good graces. New initiatives are likely to be announced throughout the trip, testimony to the preparations by an experienced Obama foreign policy team as well as the legacy of past policies.

Dr. Charles E. Morrison is President of the East-West Center.


The EAST-WEST CENTER is an education and research organization established by the U.S. Congress in 1960 to strengthen relations and understanding among the peoples and nations of Asia, the Pacific, and the United States. The Center contributes to a peaceful, prosperous and just Asia Pacific community by serving as a vigorous hub for cooperative research, education and dialogue on critical issues of common concern to the Asia Pacific region and the United States. Funding for the Center comes from the U.S. government, with additional support provided by private agencies, individuals, foundations, corporations and the governments of the region.

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