U.S. is reaching out to East Asia's powerful nations

President Obama meets with Singapore's former leader Lee Kuan Yew last week in the Oval Office.
President Obama meets with Singapore's former leader Lee Kuan Yew last week in the Oval Office. (Gerald Herbert/associated Press)
By John Pomfret
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, November 7, 2009

Ever since taking office, President Obama has signaled that the United States wants to improve relations with the powerhouse nations of East Asia, and he'll put his personal imprint on that when he travels to the region for the first time next week.

The new focus underlies the president's view that having influence in the region, especially as China grows as an international economic and military force, is critical to U.S. interests. As Singapore's former prime minister Lee Kuan Yew said in Washington last week: "If you do not hold your ground in the Pacific, you cannot be a world leader."

But as the administration tries to put that into practice, officials are finding it easier said than done, especially in key areas such as trade.

"We really see this -- our engagement with East Asia -- to be critical to our own future," Deputy Secretary of State James Steinberg said Friday at the Center for American Progress in a forum in preparation for Obama's visit.

Obama's emphasis on Asia has been in contrast to the Bush administration, which focused on the Iraq war and terrorism. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton's first overseas trip was to attend meetings in Southeast Asia that had been skipped by her predecessor and to sign a treaty with the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations.

The administration's support of letting the G-20, which includes four Asian powers -- China, India, Australia and Indonesia, replace the G-7 group of wealthy industrialized nations as a global policy forum was another sign of its new emphasis. The administration also reached out to Burma, holding talks this week with the military junta and dissidents, breaking a 12-year-old policy aimed at isolating the regime. It also engineered the first U.N.-backed effort to prevent North Korea from selling weapons of mass destruction.

The administration has committed to closer consultation with Japan and South Korea over North Korea in the hopes of salving what Jeffrey Bader, the National Security Council's senior director for Asia, called "bruised feelings" in Tokyo and Seoul over previous American failures to consult with its allies. And Obama is the first president in 16 years to enter office generally supporting the China policy of his predecessor, ensuring a continuity lacking in recent administrations.

Asian leaders welcome the new attention, especially from an American president who grew up in the Pacific region and spent years in Indonesia as a youth. In Indonesia, for example, Obama has a substantial reservoir of goodwill in a mostly Muslim country of around 240 million people whose own president, a U.S.-trained former general, won re-election in July by a landslide. "After all, he is not Bush," said Noer Hassan Wirajuda, who served as Indonesia's Foreign Minister until this fall.

The problem is that the administration needs more than good intentions, said Douglas H. Paal, a former National Security Council official now at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Paal and other analysts said the most important issue is trade as Asian nations have dropped barriers among themselves while the United States has failed to act.

"The business of Asia is business," said Evan A. Feigenbaum, a former senior State Department official currently at the Council of Foreign Relations. "What you've got is an Asian challenge to Obama in the economic area that his predecessors didn't face. Whatever good things the administration is doing -- and they are doing good things -- there is no substitute for economic engagement."

The United States and South Korea, for example, signed a free-trade accord in June 2007, but the Senate has yet to ratify it. Meanwhile, South Korea's parliament on Friday ratified a free trade agreement with India. Earlier this year the government in Seoul inked a free trade deal with the European Union that, ironically, was modeled on the languishing American accord.

The Obama administration has also put on hold its participation in the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a group of eight Pacific nations interested in negotiating free trade deals. But China and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations are currently creating a free trade zone, modeled in part on the North American Free Trade Agreement. And South Korea, Japan and China have started discussing the possibility of a free-trade zone between their countries as well.

Both Bader and Steinberg said Obama was committed to free trade, but analysts have criticized the administration for failing to lay out a clear trade policy. And the Obama administration has taken a more aggressive stance against dumping from China and other countries, prompting charges of protectionism abroad.

Washington's ties with Asia's two giants -- China and Japan -- are also facing challenges. While both Bader and Steinberg in their speeches Friday praised China's cooperation on pressuring North Korea to abandon its nuclear program, Beijing clearly values support of the North Korean regime as a higher priority than convincing Pyongyang to give up its nuclear weapons. China's premier Wen Jiabao recently visited Pyongyang, and offered aid worth at least $20 million.

The administration also wants China's help persuading Iran to abandon its alleged nuclear weapons program, but China opposes sanctions on Tehran, which supplies 15 percent of its China's oil.

And one of the United States' oldest allies in the region is providing a new challenge. The newly-elected Democratic Party of Japan, has called for a less subservient relationship to the United States and wants a fresh look at a deal on U.S. military bases.

Staff writer Andrew Higgins in Jakarta, Indonesia, contributed to this report.

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