President Obama wrapped up his 10th and final trip to Asia on Thursday by touting the “extraordinary progress” in the region and taking credit for expanding U.S. influence and prestige among a diverse set of ally and rival nations.
But his victory lap was punctured when a reporter asked him to respond to Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump’s contention that he had been “humiliated” this week by his Asian counterparts.
Obama, clearly exasperated, said, “I think that is overblown.”
“Everywhere we’ve gone, we’ve had a great reception,” he said at a news conference in Vientiane, Laos, noting crowds lining the streets as he became the first U.S. president to visit the communist nation. “Any reasonable person, certainly any person in the region, would be puzzled as to how [Trump’s remarks] became somehow indicative of the work we’ve done here.”
Obama was frustrated that a pair of awkward protocol stumbles — a tarmac squabble between U.S. and China officials that marred his arrival in Hangzhou, China, and a canceled bilateral meeting with the Philippines president over a personal slur — threatened to partially obscure the tangible accomplishments of his nine-day trip.
Yet the outcome was perhaps a fitting conclusion for his fitful and inconsistent two-term effort to “rebalance” U.S. foreign policy toward Asia, which Obama has viewed as a legacy issue to help maintain U.S. economic growth and national security. Since announcing the policy in 2011, Obama has struggled to extract the United States from wars in the Middle East and Central Asia and shift attention and resources to the world’s fastest-growing and most-populous region.
As he prepares to depart office, Obama pointed this week to an ambitious global climate pact spurred by the United States’ agreement with China to reduce greenhouse gases. His administration has forged closer military ties with Australia, the Philippines and Vietnam, and the president personally helped mend icy relations between Japan and South Korea over historical grievances. He will tout U.S. support of Burma’s burgeoning democratic transition after a half-century of brutal military rule when the nation’s de facto leader, state counselor Aung San Suu Kyi, visits the White House next week.
But the rise of the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq and Russia’s invasion of eastern Ukraine have preoccupied the administration. North Korea’s test of another ballistic missile while the president was in the region served as a reminder that the White House, in contrast to the negotiations with Iran over its nuclear program, has made no headway with the world’s most reclusive authoritarian state.
Most disappointing of all to Obama, the economic pillar of his Asia rebalance policy, the 12-nation Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade accord led by the United States, remains stalled in Congress. Crafted as a hedge to China’s growing clout, the TPP is opposed by both Trump and Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton, who reversed herself amid a broad anti-trade sentiment among voters after having championed it as secretary of state.
“His heart is in the right place, and his intent is in the right place, but the politics of trade will muck up his legacy,” said Victor Cha, an analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies who served as Asia director in the George W. Bush administration. “He will not have finished the victory lap in Asia until the TPP is done.”
Obama, and Vice President Biden, have vowed to campaign for a trade vote during an expected lame-duck session of Congress after the November elections. But Republican leaders have said that no vote is likely before Obama leaves office.
The stark truth is that the Asia rebalance remains a work in progress, and Obama will hand it off to his successor with no guarantees.
“The concern I’ve heard is not that what we’ve done hasn’t been important and successful,” the president said in Laos. “The concern that I’ve heard is, ‘Will it continue?’ Almost uniformly, the question I get from other leaders is, ‘We hope America’s interest and presence and engagement is sustained.’ ”
Trump has bashed China and Japan on trade, and he has suggested that the United States’ defense treaties with Japan and South Korea, predicated on U.S. military bases in both countries, are too expensive for U.S. taxpayers.
Clinton is far more likely to maintain U.S. engagement in the region, having been intimately involved in the opening of Burma at the State Department. But it is not clear that she would continue Obama’s frequent presence in the region; he made more trips to Asia than did his predecessors, deploying his personal appeal to help spread U.S. values and goodwill.
Huge crowds lined the streets when Obama made his first visit to Vietnam in May and lifted a long-standing U.S. arms embargo.
“The U.S. has historically never seen itself as naturally tied to Asia strategically,” Cha said. “It’s always been war brought us there . . . Obama said, ‘No, in peacetime, Asia will be strategically important to us.’ ”
The region clearly remains important to Obama on a personal level. In town hall-style meetings with young people in Southeast Asia over the years — including one in the scenic city of Luang Prabang this week — the president waxed fondly about the years he spent as a young boy living with his mother in Indonesia five decades ago.
On his visit to Laos, Obama pledged $90 million in aid to the country to help clear millions of unexploded bombs dropped by U.S. warplanes during the Vietnam War. He also took time to tour the Wat Xieng Thong temple, browse a market for paper lanterns and sip water from a coconut.
“In terms of my reception here, as far as I can tell, it’s been terrific,” Obama told reporters shortly before returning to Washington. “I don’t know if you’ve gone and talked to some people in Laos, but they seem pretty happy with my visit.”