Speaking to reporters shortly before he and first lady Michelle Obama departed on Air Force One, the president said this country’s financial recovery will depend in large part on strengthening trade and productivity in the face of increased challenges from China and other emerging powers.
“The most important competition we face in this new century will not be between Democrats and Republicans. It’s the competition with countries around the world to lead the global economy,” Obama said. “Our future depends on putting politics aside to solve problems, to worry about the next generation instead of the next election.”
Presidents often emphasize foreign policy during difficult political times at home, and Obama’s only extended foray outside the country this year will take him to a quartet of democracies where he is viewed more favorably than he is in the United States.
Obama, who will officially begin the trip when he arrives in the Indian coastal city of Mumbai on Saturday, considers each of the Asian nations he will visit essential to the U.S. economic recovery.
“One of the keys to creating jobs is to open markets to American goods made by American workers,” Obama said. “Our prosperity depends not just on consuming things, but also on being the maker of things.” He said he wants to double American exports by 2016.
Among Obama’s challenges will be convincing his counterparts in Asia and at two economic summits that he has not been weakened politically by the midterm setback and that issues such as free trade, a divisive subject within the Democratic Party, remain central to his ambitions in the region.
“He’ll look pretty beaten up,” said Douglas H. Paal, a National Security Council official for Asia in the Reagan and George H.W. Bush administrations who is vice president of studies at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “But the practical reality is that the president of the United States is a big deal — defeated in an election or not.”
The fact that Obama has chosen Asia represents a far-reaching policy decision that the administration does not want lost on the countries he will visit.
During the transition, Obama’s administration-in-waiting began an intensive assessment of the U.S. position abroad to identify where it was committing too many resources and where it needed to devote more. Asia rose to the top of the latter category.
Obama and his foreign policy team believed that the Middle East, in particular, was occupying too much attention. They concluded that, over the long term, the economies and ambitions of China, Japan, India and other Asian nations could prove more important to U.S. interests.
Since then, Obama has worked to reorient U.S. foreign policy toward Asian nations, whose rising middle class could drive future U.S. economic growth with its hunger for exports even as American consumers retrench. He will underscore the point on his first day in India, at the Group of 20 summit in Seoul, and in Japan at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation conference that concludes the trip.
Obama, who also traveled to Asia his first year in office, has increased the U.S. presence in several Asian economic forums and is joining another. And he has expanded defense cooperation with some Asian nations, including ones on his itinerary.
“The United States was not as present in the region as our interests dictated we should be,” Thomas E. Donilon, Obama’s national security adviser, said in a recent interview. “We had a vision, and now we’re at the center of the emerging security and economic architecture in Asia. . . . We are not going to be the administration that lets the rise of Asia pass us by.”
A neglected power?
The message matters most in Obama’s first stop, India, where many fear that the progress made in the U.S.-India relationship during the George W. Bush administration has stalled.
In contrast to China, the U.S. balance of trade with India’s fast-growing economy is roughly equal. The value of U.S. goods exported to India has quadrupled to $17 billion annually over the past seven years.
Senior officials say that, as fellow democracies, the United States and India are more natural allies than others in the region, namely China, where Obama visited last year.
But Obama’s large aid package to Pakistan, a critical player in the war in Afghanistan, and commitment to “getting China right,” as one senior adviser put it, has left India’s leaders worried that Obama considers their interests secondary to the country’s regional rivals.
Administration officials credit Bush with transforming the U.S.-India relationship through a civilian nuclear deal that lifted a three-decade U.S. moratorium on nuclear trade with India and provides assistance to the country’s nuclear power industry.
Indian officials want Obama, who will address India’s Parliament in New Delhi, to take the next step by expanding military-to-military relationships, removing business barriers such as the increase in U.S. visa fees, and providing a fuller explanation of U.S. intentions in Pakistan and Afghanistan.
“We hope this trip will consolidate the strategic partnership and lay out a direction for the future in terms of bilateral, regional and global cooperation,” Meera Shankar, India’s ambassador to the United States, told reporters recently.
Obama will speak on his first day to the U.S.-India Business Council. The appearance is designed to present India, a country of 1.2 billion people that expects to be the world’s third-largest economy within a decade, as a place that will create U.S. jobs, not just take them in the form of outsourcing.
Administration officials think the message is an important one to deliver after a midterm election in which jobs, and their disappearance overseas, were potent issues on the campaign trail. Obama himself has frequently criticized the outsourcing of U.S. jobs — statements that have rankled some in India.
“We hope that there is a better understanding that India and the work we do is actually a solution rather than the problem that it is made out to be,” said Som Mittal, president of India’s National Association of Software and Services Companies.
A challenge to China
Nearly as important as the countries Obama is visiting on this trip is the one he is not: China.
His tour of economically potent Asian democracies — India, Indonesia, South Korea and Japan — is a tacit challenge to the Chinese economic model of a heavy state hand wielded by an unelected government.
“The grander strategy here is exactly what he is doing — that is, going to visit key allies and not talking much about China,” said Dan Blumenthal, a resident fellow at the conservative American Enterprise Institute.
Senior administration officials say Asian nations have counted on U.S. security to build their economies, something China itself has benefited from because of the relative stability that thousands of U.S. troops have brought to the Korean Peninsula.
But China’s neighbors also look at its rise uneasily and want the United States to work as an economic and security counterweight.
Administration officials say the United States is doing so by joining the East Asia Summit, a 16-nation forum that includes the region’s most important economies, and participating regularly in regional summits, something rarely done in the waning years of the Bush administration.
“We want to shape the context in which China’s emergence is occurring,” said Jeff Bader, the National Security Council’s senior director for Asian affairs. “We want to ensure that China’s emergence, China’s rise, contributes rather than detracts from Asian stability, and that’s not going to happen if we allow our other relationships in the region to fray.”
‘A person of the Pacific’
Arriving days after a sharp political setback at home, Obama can expect a warmer welcome in each of the countries he will visit.
In India, he will visit a school, take questions from university students in a type of town hall forum and address parliament in a speech that is likely to receive extensive national coverage. He’ll hold at least four news conferences during the trip.
But it will be in Indonesia, Obama’s home during four years of childhood, where he will practice the most personal diplomacy.
In Jakarta, the capital, he will visit a mosque and deliver an address, possibly in an outdoor venue. Aides say they expect a big, enthusiastic audience to hear Obama, a year and a half after his speech to the Muslim world from Cairo, talk about how Indonesia stands as an example of Islam and democracy successfully coexisting.
“He is a person of the Pacific,” Donilon said. “These countries, these cultures, are of deep interest to him. He understands these places in a way I don’t know if any American president has.”
Correspondent Emily Wax in New Delhi and staff writer Karen DeYoung in Washington contributed to this report.