President Obama was criticized by many last November for asserting his intention of becoming the first “Pacific President.” One year later, with Secretary Clinton just returning from a seven-country tour and President Obama en route to India, Indonesia, South Korea, and Japan, it appears the Administration is working hard to deliver on that promise. Republican control of the US House of Representatives will provide both opportunities and challenges to the progress already made in Asia.
Global economic weight has shifted east and Asia’s continually-growing economies are fundamental to US economic recovery. The region is also host to several complex security concerns. North Korea, China, and Myanmar are all undergoing delicate political transitions of unpredictable consequence. US relationships with Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam have reached new levels, and some Southeast Asian countries are increasingly asserting their interests in opposition to China’s assertiveness on issues such as maritime territorial disputes and rights in the South China Sea. The United States has an opportunity to play a constructive balancing role in this time of great change – a role welcomed by many countries in the region.
President Obama took hits for twice postponing trips to Indonesia, a rising economic and regional player where he spent a portion of his childhood. Those plans were altered in deference to domestic concerns – first the healthcare overhaul and then the Gulf of Mexico oil spill. While many Asia-watchers debated the impact these decisions would have to important US relationships, it appears little lasting damage was done by postponing the trips. The critical voices that remained are now overshadowed by President Obama’s successful visit to Jakarta.
The midterm elections and resulting change of leadership in the House could provide an opportunity to move forward with the US-Korea FTA. If final negotiations can resolve the few remaining sticking points, the agreement would have the dual benefit of boosting exports and strengthening an important strategic relationship. US exporters would benefit from the weak dollar and the move would strengthen bilateral ties at a time of heightened tensions on the Korean Peninsula and in the run-up to a delicate and uncertain political transition in North Korea.
While the geopolitics of the Obama Administration’s East Asia policies are most exciting for many analysts, there are also substantive efforts to assist countries with important domestic development needs. The Lower Mekong Initiative (LMI) provides an opportunity to constructively assist countries address environmental challenges, adapt to anticipated climate changes, make informed decisions about infrastructure and natural resources, and improve the education and health of their populations. The LMI has already raised expectations in the region and the US is at risk of disappointing important new partners if unable to deliver.
Many of these activities are correctly viewed as efforts to balance Chinese influence in the region, but the Administration has made clear that influence is not a zero-sum game. President Obama is in the midst of visits to four democracies on China’s periphery, a symbol in and of itself. Secretary Clinton has at times spoken more directly on the need for countries to resist what could become overbearing Chinese influence in their affairs. Importantly, the Administration has so far deftly walked a delicate line that does not directly provoke China, but demonstrates, as made clear by Jeff Bader, Senior Director for Asian Affairs at the National Security Council, that the US will be involved in shaping “the context in which China’s emergence is occurring.”
 Scott Wilson, “Obama ready to turn his attention to Asia,” The Washington Post, (November 5, 2010) Pg. A10.
Photo Credit: Singapore APEC Obama, November 2009. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)