Obama ready to turn his attention to Asia

Security is tight as India prepares to host President Obama. Obama hopes the trip will solidify economic ties.
By Scott Wilson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, November 5, 2010

President Obama embarks Friday on a foreign trip focused on Asian nations that he believes are essential to the recovery of a stumbling U.S. economy, just days after voters anxious over the lack of jobs dealt Democrats a stinging defeat.

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.

But among his 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.

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