MANILA — President Obama turned his attention away from the turmoil in the Middle East on Tuesday, arriving in the Philippines for a series of leadership summits and unveiling plans to deepen U.S. ties in Southeast Asia.
Obama toured a former Coast Guard frigate, now used by the Philippine navy, and announced that the U.S. military would donate two more ships to the Philippines. The gesture was the latest by his administration to reassure allies that they could rely on the United States to maintain a close strategic partnership.
That the president was here at all, just days after the gruesome terrorist attacks in France, was perhaps the most visible signal of his determination to follow through on a long-term strategy to bolster American leadership in Asia. Under intense political pressure to ramp up military operations to combat the Islamic State, which claimed responsibility for the attacks, Obama chose to depart a gathering of global leaders in Turkey and follow through with six more days of summit meetings in the Philippines and Malaysia.
“The United States has been committed to the security of this region for more than 70 years,” Obama said after a brief tour of the BRP Gregorio del Pilar, now operating in the South China Sea. “We have a treaty obligation, an ironclad commitment to the defense of our ally the Philippines, who can count on the United States.”
Yet Obama’s presence here amid new fears about the Islamic State’s capacity to sow terror beyond its home base in Syria also underscored the challenges he faces in balancing his foreign policy objectives with just over a year left in office.
Obama hopes his Asia trip will be a chance to highlight progress on several important initiatives, including a 12-nation Pacific Rim trade pact and the recent elections in Burma that look set to bring a democratic opposition party to power. But the attacks that killed at least 129 people in Paris on Friday served as a stark reminder of the Obama administration’s struggles to wind down the U.S. military and intelligence focus on the Middle East.
The U.S.-led campaign against the Islamic State featured prominently in Obama’s first bilateral meeting here, with new Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull. Leaders from throughout the region have gathered for an Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit.
“We will continue shoulder to shoulder with the United States and our allies in the fight against this type of extremist violence, this type of terrorism,” Turnbull told reporters after meeting with Obama. “We have a common purpose and a common strategy.”
In the coming days, Obama also will meet separately with the leaders of Canada, Singapore, the Philippines, Malaysia, Japan and Laos, and he is likely to press them, along with other counterparts, to step up commitments in the fight against terrorism.
Still, aides insisted that Obama would not be deterred from his pre-planned agenda. The tour of the frigate at Manila harbor was designed to bolster U.S. support for freedom-of-navigation rules in the South China Sea, where a number of nations — including the Philippines and Vietnam — have been embroiled in an escalating territorial dispute with China.
Beijing’s effort to control the area through the construction of a series of artificial islands led Obama to dispatch a naval destroyer to sail past the reefs last month.
“The administration is clearly trying to send a signal to Beijing,” said Michael J. Green, an Asia expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “The problem is: Is China listening? Is it actually shaping Chinese behavior? The jury’s still out, and arguably even negative.”
On Wednesday, on the sidelines of the APEC summit, where Chinese President Xi Jinping will be in attendance, Obama is scheduled to meet with the leaders of the 11 other countries involved in the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a sweeping trade deal completed last month. The pact, which does not include China, aims to lower tariffs on goods and services and establish new regulatory provisions for a range of industries.
The agreement still needs ratification by Congress and other national legislatures, and Obama hopes that highlighting the pact here will boost its political support at home. White House officials have called the deal crucial in the face of China’s growing economic clout in the region.
“The bottom line is that China still has a lot of money to throw around,” said Tobias Harris, an economics and trade expert at the Sasakawa Peace Foundation USA. For Southeast Asian nations, “it is hard for them to turn that down — their need for infrastructure investment is unquestioned. . . . And as China’s winning bid for the high-speed rail system in Indonesia shows, at the end of the day, if China can offer money with little or no conditions, that is incredibly enticing to these governments.”
From Manila, Obama will travel Friday to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, where he will participate in two more summits, including a gathering of Southeast Asian leaders. He will give a speech at a local university and tour a refugee center to highlight the global migration crisis, including the flow out of war-torn Syria.
“In Asia, in particular, it really matters to attend these summits at the level of the leader,” Ben Rhodes, a deputy national security adviser, said in a briefing for reporters that took place last week before the Paris attacks. “That was not the case before President Obama took office, and so we made it actually a common occurrence . . . because we want the United States to be at the table at the Asia-Pacific in shaping the future of the region, and signaling that we’re going to be present.”