President Obama departs Tuesday for a week-long, 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 canceled his plans 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 III.
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 E. 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 such munitions 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.”
In part, leaders of the four nations need the United States to serve as a counterweight to China’s efforts to assert territorial control both at sea and in the air. The air-defense identification zone that China established in November, for example, overlaps with some of Japan’s, South Korea’s and Taiwan’s airspace. Malaysia and the Philippines, meanwhile, have clashed with China over maritime boundaries in the South China Sea.
Those moves have created a political opportunity for the United States, said Andrew Kennedy, a professor of public policy at Australian National University.
“Whereas 10 years ago the U.S. was often seen as the more aggressive power, today it’s China that many are worried about,” Kennedy said by e-mail. “That has created opportunities for the U.S. to strengthen relationships with a range of countries in Asia.”
But even as Obama shows these allies America’s support, he will also have to be careful not to alienate the Chinese.
“Providing reassurances to countries in the region on the one hand and making sure U.S.-China relations are not turned into a more hostile and confrontational direction, that’s a rather tricky thing to do,” Yongwook Ryu, a research fellow at Australian National University, said in an interview.
Economic relations rank just as high as security issues on the president’s list of concerns to be addressed on this trip. The United States and Japan have been engaged in intense negotiations for months — and as recently as Friday — over how to resolve their trade differences in the context of the broader Trans-Pacific Partnership, a pact that would encompass 12 nations and 40 percent of the world’s gross domestic product.
The two sides still have serious differences over how to treat the agricultural and automobile sectors, but officials from both governments said last week that they remain optimistic about reaching a deal. Even so, any agreement will face Democratic opposition once it reaches Capitol Hill.
In an interview Thursday, Commerce Secretary Penny Pritzker — who is headed to Asia for the third time since taking her post a year ago — noted that her department has focused on the region by placing nearly 27 percent of its foreign commercial service officers there, more than in any other region in the world. While high-level visits tend to garner the most attention, she said, “the daily work that goes on to help American businesses do work throughout the region is through the foreign commercial service. That’s in full swing.”
The president will also seek to connect with everyday Asians — especially young people. He will hold a town hall meeting at the University of Malaya in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, with youth representatives from 100 countries as he launches a Young Southeast Asian Leaders Initiative.
That sort of outreach could lead to more enduring ties with a country such as Malaysia, which has been sending fewer students to the United States recently, according to Marvin Ott, Southeast Asia senior scholar at the Wilson Center.
At the same time, Obama will be under pressure from advocates such as John Sifton, Asia advocacy director for Human Rights Watch, to criticize Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak and his government for curbing free expression by labeling opposition politicians as gay. Last month, a Malaysian court overturned a 2012 acquittal of government critic Anwar Ibrahim on sodomy charges, for example, and sentenced him to prison for five years.
“We’re not looking for the White House to humiliate their hosts,” Sifton said, “but we’re looking for them to mildly embarrass their hosts because they deserve to be embarrassed, especially on the LGBT thing.”
Regardless of how he navigates some of those specific political pitfalls, said Michael Green, senior vice president for Asia at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, Obama needs to use this “do-over trip” to articulate an overarching vision for the U.S. role in the region.
“I think the president’s really got to say, ‘What is the American bottom line in Asia?’ And that’s that — we want a rule-based order where our allies are already on board, where the future is in the direction of democratic values and rule of law,” Green said in an interview Sunday, adding that in the countries Obama will be visiting, “they really want to hear that.”