U.S. President Barack Obama has concluded a three-country Southeast Asia tour designed to punctuate his administration’s intention to focus on Asia. The intentions are good and the strategy is correct: Asia deserves a more prominent place in U.S. thinking and planning.
But the realities of governing conspired to overshadow Mr. Obama’s intent: A crisis in the Gaza Strip and the prospect of a fiscal crisis in the United States distracted the president from his pledge to focus more attention on Asia.
Mr. Obama visited Thailand, Myanmar and Cambodia on his first trip after winning re-election.
In Bangkok, he strengthened his country’s alliance with Thailand, and Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra said her country was prepared to begin negotiations on joining the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement.
In a gesture that meant much to the country’s residents, Mr. Obama visited Thailand’s ailing 84-year-old king in the hospital.
From there Mr. Obama went to Myanmar, marking the first visit ever by a U.S. president to that country. He met President Thein Sein and encouraged him to continue his country’s efforts toward political and economic reform.
Mr. Obama announced a new mission from the U.S. Agency for International Development and pledged a two-year aid package worth $170 million.
In a meeting that was unimaginable two years ago, he joined leading opposition figure and Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi for a discussion of their two countries’ future.
Mr. Obama has taken heat for his visit. Critics argue that more reform is needed before the U.S. gives the Myanmar regime the stamp of approval. Mr. Obama countered that his visit signals the benefits of Myanmar’s continuing down the current path and will encourage the government to do more, rather than slack off.
Finally, he stopped in Cambodia, another first visit for a sitting U.S. president. There he met with Prime Minister Hun Sen, another leader with a questionable political and human rights record, reportedly telling him in a closed door meeting of the need to improve that dismal performance.
Then Mr. Obama joined two regional meetings, one with leaders of the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations and the 18-nation East Asia Summit (EAS), a political institution that is struggling to find its feet in political and security affairs.
Attendees at the U.S.-ASEAN meeting agree that it would henceforth be a leaders’ summit — rather than just a “meeting” — which would lock in top-level participation and signal that it is a strategic get-together. That fits squarely with the larger goals of U.S. foreign policy and the rebalance to Asia.
At the EAS, Mr. Obama reiterated U.S. support for peaceful solutions to the region’s territorial disputes. This time, however, China did not seem as riled by the comments as it did when Secretary of State Hillary Clinton expressed a similar sentiment and offered U.S. help in working out an arrangement.
But if Mr. Obama can be pleased with the accomplishments of his trip, he must be troubled by the larger picture that emerges. The rebalance to Asia is an attempt to reframe and refocus U.S. foreign policy in the aftermath of the Afghanistan and Iraq wars, but no sooner was the president in-flight than his attention was diverted to the escalating violence in the Gaza Strip.
Reportedly, meals with Asian leaders were followed by hours of phone calls to tackle the brewing crisis. While the president can — and must — be able to deal with several problems at the same time, the perception of distraction and an inability to deliver on the promise to focus on Asia persists.
If that is not enough, there are the fiscal challenges that the U.S. faces and the looming “fiscal cliff.”
Asian leaders (and their publics) are savvy and understand the budget constraints that Mr. Obama faces. Even if he can focus on Asia, he may not have the resources to do so.
Fortunately, the U.S. budget problem is more political than economic: If U.S. political leaders muster the will, then the U.S. can overcome its fiscal problems. That is a big “if,” however. With cuts, it is questionable whether the U.S. will have the resources to accomplish its objectives in Asia.
But again, the issue is the perception of U.S. weakness, and that is a more difficult obstacle to overcome.
Another important obstacle is China’s effort to paint Washington as a disruptor of the status quo.
China sees itself as the rightful leader of the region and, while it cannot yet displace the U.S., it seeks equal status for now (and likely will go for pre-eminence later).
Beijing insists that Washington’s actions spark regional instability. Its own rhetoric makes that assertion a fact. It is up to the U.S. to counter Chinese claims and for U.S. allies and partners to push back against that narrative as well. They must remind other nations and China that the U.S. is welcome in Asia.
Indeed, the critical question for the U.S. is the perception of its Asia policy. While the U.S. proclaims a new strategic focus on the region, the vast majority of these policies have been in place for over a decade.
The U.S. will continue to be deeply involved in Asian affairs. The U.S. leadership understands that its future vitality requires a deeper commitment to the region and a deeper appreciation of its value to the U.S.
But Mr. Obama fights an uphill battle — not because of actual constraints, but because of the perception that his resources are limited. Winning the public relations battle — the battle for Asian minds — is the real challenge for the U.S.