WASHINGTON – President Barack Obama departs Tuesday for a weeklong, four-nation tour of Asia, where he and his top aides will be less focused on any big policy announcements than on reassuring jittery allies that America remains committed to bolstering its security and economic ties to the region.
The trip – rescheduled from October, when Obama was forced to cancel because of the government shutdown – includes two of the countries on his original itinerary, Malaysia and the Philippines, as well as Japan and South Korea.
On one level, the president has a long list of tasks awaiting him: He will try to make headway on trade negotiations with Japan, work to ease tensions between Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and South Korean President Park Geun-hye, foster a closer alliance with the government in Muslim-majority Malaysia and shore up support for Philippine President Benigno Aquino.
But it is also, by its very nature, an interim step in the administration’s larger project of seeking to rebalance its relationship with the most economically and socially dynamic region of the world at a time when China continues to expand its influence there.
In a briefing Friday, senior administration officials detailed the president’s plans to hold bilateral talks and visit sites including the national mosque in Malaysia and a science and technology museum in Japan. National security adviser Susan Rice emphasized that she and other top officials increasingly see our top priorities as tied to Asia, whether it’s accessing new markets or promoting exports or protecting our security interests and promoting our core values.
And at a time of ongoing regional tensions, particularly with regard to North Korea and territorial disputes, the trip offers a chance for the United States to affirm our commitment to a rules-based order in the region, she added.
Douglas Paal, director of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace’s Asia program, said that sort of affirmation will be critical to those who watched Obama establish a red line in Syria over the use of chemical weapons but then decide against intervention when chemical weapons were used last summer.
The heavyweights in the region got very scared by the Syrian decision last summer, Paal said, noting that those same leaders remain deeply invested in the United States maintaining a strong influence on Asian affairs. These are people who want the U.S. to be successful.