WASHINGTON – Ever since taking office, President Obama has signaled that the United States wants to improve relations with the powerhouse nations of East Asia, and he’ll put his personal imprint on that when he travels to the region for the first time this week.
The new focus underlies the president’s view that having influence in the region, especially as China grows as an international economic and military force, is critical to U.S. interests. As Singapore’s former Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew said in Washington last week: “If you do not hold your ground in the Pacific, you cannot be a world leader.”
But as the administration tries to put that into practice, officials are finding it easier said than done, especially in key areas such as trade.
“We really see this – our engagement with East Asia – to be critical to our own future,” Deputy Secretary of State James Steinberg said Friday at the Center for American Progress in a forum in preparation for Obama’s visit.
Obama had been scheduled to leave on Wednesday and arrive in Tokyo on Thursday. But his decision to attend a memorial service at Fort Hood, Texas, on Tuesday will delay his departure by about a day.
Obama’s emphasis on Asia has been in contrast to the Bush administration, which focused on the Iraq war and terrorism. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton’s first overseas trip was to attend meetings in Southeast Asia that had been skipped by her predecessor and to sign a treaty with the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations.
The administration’s support of letting the G-20, which includes four Asian powers – China, India, Australia and Indonesia – replace the G-7 group of wealthy industrialized nations as a global policy forum was another sign of its new emphasis. The administration also engineered the first U.N.-backed effort to prevent North Korea from selling weapons of mass destruction.
The administration has committed to closer consultation with Japan and South Korea over North Korea in the hopes of salving what Jeffrey Bader, the National Security Council’s senior director for Asia, called “bruised feelings” in Tokyo and Seoul over previous American failures to consult with its allies.
Asian leaders welcome the new attention, especially from a U.S. president who grew up in the Pacific region and spent years in Indonesia as a youth.
The problem is that the administration needs more than good intentions, said Douglas Paal, a former National Security Council official now at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Paal and other analysts said the most important issue is trade as Asian nations have dropped barriers among themselves while the United States has failed to act.