Goals for Mr. Obama's trip to Asia

Thursday, November 4, 2010; 9:09 PM

IT MAY LOOK as if President Obama is fleeing the country for friendlier shores when he departs Friday on the longest trip of his presidency. In fact, his tour of India, Indonesia, Japan and South Korea is important - and in the case of the first two countries, overdue. The administration has rightly recognized that building stronger relations with Asia's emerging powers as well as traditional allies such as Japan and South Korea is essential to U.S. economic and security interests. But while he has held a record number of meetings with Chinese President Hu Jintao, Mr. Obama has not done as well with the region's big democracies.

India, where Mr. Obama will begin his trip, ought to be a focal point of U.S. policy; "it's a relationship," as a White House briefer put it, that "is going to be indispensable to shaping the 21st century." Yet so far this administration's partnership with New Delhi has been less warm and productive than that of the Bush administration. India's democratic leadership worried about Mr. Obama's early courtship of Mr. Hu; like most countries in Asia it has been disturbed by what it sees as the growing belligerence of Chinese foreign policy. Mr. Obama's simultaneous cultivation of Pakistan and pledge to begin a withdrawal from Afghanistan next year has raised legitimate concerns that the United States will leave a dangerous mess in the region, as it did in the early 1990s.

With midterm voters' concerns fresh in mind, Mr. Obama on Wednesday claimed that "the whole focus" of the trip will be "to open up markets . . . so we can sell more goods." It shouldn't be. While India's barriers to U.S. businesses need work, so does the broader strategic relationship. The president should offer Prime Minister Manmohan Singh the assurance that the United States is committed to maintaining stability in the region - beginning with Afghanistan - and that India will have U.S. support in checking overreaching by China.

What distinguishes India and the other countries on the president's itinerary from China is their flourishing democracies. In Indonesia, the world's most populous majority-Muslim country, Mr. Obama will have the chance to offer support to the newest of those political systems. An aide says the president will deliver a major speech about "the themes of democracy and development and our outreach to Muslim communities." That should be an opportunity to place democracy at the center both of U.S. strategy in Asia and policy toward the Muslim world.

Mr. Obama's tour has raised some questions about whether the United States is trying to take advantage of the growing anxiety of China's neighbors or assemble a coalition against it. In fact Mr. Obama will be meeting Mr. Hu - for the seventh time - at the Group of 20 summit in Seoul. It's important that the administration try to coax Beijing toward more responsible behavior in areas ranging from trade to North Korea. But the United States also has a vital role to play as an ally and defender of Asia's democracies. It's right for Mr. Obama to embrace that mission.

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