U.S. President Barack Obama heads back to Asia a year after he canceled a similar trip and missed two regional summits. With stops in China, Myanmar, and Australia, Obama’s visit will include the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) forum, the East Asia Summit, and a G20 leaders meeting.

In a Q&A, Douglas Paal previews the trip and analyzes its significance. With fears mounting that Obama has lost focus on Asia amid a host of other foreign policy concerns, this is an opportunity to reconnect with leaders and chart a clear path forward.

What are the priorities on the trip? Which stop is most significant?

Douglas H. Paal
Paal previously served as vice chairman of JPMorgan Chase International and as unofficial U.S. representative to Taiwan as director of the American Institute in Taiwan.
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Much of the tone of Obama’s visit will be set by the outcome of the November 4 midterm elections in the United States. With the Republicans winning control of the Senate and a larger majority in the House of Representatives, Obama will need to characterize his defeat and try to outline his agenda under the new political circumstances. The Republicans’ characterization of their agenda will also matter.

The APEC stop in Beijing is most important for what it will portend for management of U.S.-China relations during the remaining two years of Obama’s term. This time frame coincides with Xi Jinping’s crucial years for reform and political consolidation prior to the 19th Party Congress in 2017. Steadiness, a lack of surprises, and efforts at modest levels of cooperation can lead to a productive interregnum. But as seen over the past year, China and Xi have surprised the United States and China’s neighbors with an assertive foreign policy.

The United States will also need to find a way to promote the Trans-Pacific Partnership while explaining Washington’s counterproductive opposition to China’s new Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank.

Pro-democracy protesters have been demonstrating in Hong Kong since September. Will this cause problems as China attempts to host a summit?

Every democratic leader will say something about Hong Kong. But the situation is not likely to be changed by happenings in Beijing, and the incoherence of the protesters has diminished their impact. Supporters lack a clear position to which to lend their backing.

Could the summits ease tensions in the South China Sea?

China, in the run-up to the summit it is hosting, has been establishing confidence-building mechanisms with its rivals and with the United States. Time will tell whether these are tactical, expedient measures undertaken to create a smooth meeting or more lasting indications of Chinese intentions, with consequences for lowering tensions.

Pulling the Asian members of the East Asia Summit into further consultation on Asian security challenges, such as in the South China Sea, will consume much of the oxygen during Obama’s stop in Myanmar.

Will Obama push the Myanmar government on domestic reforms?

The Myanmar government is trying to preempt pressure to revise its pro-military constitution. The process is continuing, and not yet satisfactory to the opposition led by Aung San Suu Kyi.

Obama may be able to lend a subtle bit of pressure. But sanctions imposed by the U.S. Congress have limited his quiver of inducements to help move the situation.

The president will need to resist the temptation to take credit for what the Burmese themselves have done, as his staffers tend to do.

What are the priorities at the Australian-hosted G20 meeting amid the global turmoil?

The story continues to be of growth and rebalancing.

The German-led EU still seeks surpluses, as do Japan and China, in a world where demand has diminished. Even American consumption is taking a prolonged breather in the aftermath of the great financial crisis as households continue to work off their debt. But the U.S. economy is performing well, leaving the United States in its strongest position in years.

The G20 will look at the European economy’s weakness; Japan’s surplus-inducing currency devaluation under the latest, huge quantitative easing from the Bank of Japan; and the threat of competitive devaluations to global growth.

Are regional leaders worried that Obama is backing away from the pivot to Asia?

Yes, all the noise from Washington is about everything except Asia. Obama’s focus on the rebalance has visibly drifted, worrying America’s friends that the United States will not supply the backing to resist Chinese pressures that they need.

The United States looks like a country constantly fretting over the latest stone to get in its shoes, whether Ebola, the Islamic State, or Ukraine, but that doesn’t seem to know what road it’s walking down.