Obama to Asia: The United States Is BackNext week, President Barack Obama leaves for his first tour of Asia since he entered the White House in January. Obama will land in Tokyo, the first of stop in a 10-day, four-country tour of the Asia-Pacific region. The principal message of Obama’s trip is that the U.S. has recovered from its preoccupation with terrorism and that it understands the challenges and opportunities of a rising China.

Not long before Obama’s departure, Singapore’s elder statesman Lee Kuan Yew visited Washington and pointedly reminded him at an awards ceremony sponsored by the US-ASEAN Business Council that Asian countries want American engagement, and need it to balance China. Lee cautioned the United States against over-commitment in Afghanistan, reminding his audience that the global center of gravity has shifted to Asia as a whole.

With this trip, in effect, Obama will be answering Lee and others and showing that he and his administration “get it” and that “America is back.” The question is whether he will follow his gestures with actions, or be distracted by the serious challenges America faces at home and elsewhere. An important arena for future accomplishment is rejuvenation of the American economy, an outcome Asians seek, but increasingly doubt.

Ten days is a substantial commitment of the President’s time, and a wise gesture to reassure Asian nations that while China is growing in power and influence, the U.S. will not abandon them to face it alone. At the same time, Obama’s trip will signal that Washington seeks no confrontation with Beijing, and in fact hopes to work with China on problems too great for any one power to manage: the financial crisis, climate change, non-proliferation, counter-terrorism, and regional stability.

APEC, Singapore, and the ASEAN Summit
South Korea


Obama’s first stop will naturally be Japan, home to the greatest concentration of the United States’ military forces and its most important bases in East Asia. Normally Japan, a long-reliable ally, proposes few initiatives of its own, and proves a stolid and obliging -- if somewhat boring -- host. This time, the outlook is much less predictable, and will be anything but boring for the officials involved.

On August 31, the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) won a majority in the lower house of the Diet, and the staid image of the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), which had dominated Japanese politics for almost the entire post-war period -- 1955-1993 and again from 1994 until August 31 -- gave way to something like our messy presidential transitions when the White House changes party. The DPJ is a coalition of disparate interests that enjoyed the privilege of opposing everything the LDP stood for -- good and bad -- while offering few rationalized policies of its own. The DPJ leadership is now in the process of doing the rationalization “on the job.”

In the last weeks of October, no fewer than four DPJ ministers have taken different positions on the future of a U.S. Marine helicopter base in Okinawa, known as Futenma. The future of the base was negotiated and decided in a formal U.S.-Japan agreement in 2006. Moreover, the agreement is highly contingent on a related set of expensive decisions about how to move the bulk of forward-deployed Marines out of Okinawa to Guam. Beyond that, most of the related disputes are among Japanese interest groups, not between the U.S. and Japan.

Obama’s challenge in Japan will be to guide the alliance through the current awkward transition period, and build up its capabilities to address future security contingencies. He will need to be proactive in preventing nagging issues -- base locations, host nation support costs, and lingering disputes about history and nuclear weapons policy -- from eroding the alliance from within.

In Washington, policymakers have reached one strategic conclusion about working with the DPJ, and created two tactical approaches to that end. The strategic conclusion is that the Japanese people ultimately share overwhelming support for the alliance with the U.S., and do not want their government to compromise it. Thus, there is no reason to assume dramatic outcomes once the transitional period comes to an end and the DPJ is firmly in power.

The U.S. has pursued both tactical options since the DPJ took office. First, immediately after the DPJ victory, Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs Kurt Campbell, who has extensive Japan experience, flew to Tokyo to offer reassurances of patience and willingness to confer with the new government as it sorts out its differences. Implicit in this approach is a 24/7 all-out diplomatic effort to talk Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama and his colleagues through any differences that emerge.

The second tactical approach was made public by Secretary of Defense Robert Gates’ trip to Tokyo for annual talks, during which he urged his Japanese counterparts to commit to maintaining the 2006 agreements on basing and troop redeployments. The underlying assumption of this approach is that the new Japanese government might inadvertently do a great deal of damage to the alliance as it sorts itself out. Therefore, it is necessary to set boundaries for Tokyo early.

Obama’s position between these two alternative approaches is not yet known. As in most things, he would do well to split the difference, offering Hatoyama a warm shoulder to lean on, and firm advice to be careful. Obama is slated to reveal the broad outlines of his Japan and Asia policy in an address during his stay in Tokyo. The administration chose Tokyo, rather than Beijing or, more typically, Washington, to signal the importance of the alliance, and the priority Japan enjoys over China in American policy. By giving the speech in Asia, Obama also reinforces the message that America is back.

Obama’s Tokyo visit will be more important, however, for its quiet and collegial expression of the U.S. bottom line on a host of issues, from aid to Afghanistan to nuclear weapons policy and basing issues. The goal is to lay the groundwork for good, or at least not bad outcomes in 2010.

Next year is the more symbolically important year in the history of the bilateral alliance, marking the 60th anniversary of the San Francisco Treaty ending World War II, and the 50th anniversary of the U.S.-Japan Mutual Defense Treaty. It will also be Japan’s year to host the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation Forum, which will bring leaders from across the extended region to Tokyo.

The mayor of Hiroshima is already lobbying for Obama to stop in his city in 2010, to marry regrets for using the atomic bomb on Japan with Obama’s call in Prague for an end to nuclear weapons. Others argue that he should visit Nagasaki, to mark the last time such a weapon was used in war, symbolizing Obama’s stated intent to abolish them.

If the administration and its hosts can steer clear of significant gaffes during the visit to Tokyo, the stop will likely be little noted in the U.S. Obama’s visit to the region does not portend major shifts in policy, or the appearance of such shifts, as was prominently the case in his new approaches to Russia, the Middle East, Iran, Iraq and Afghanistan.

Rather, Obama should endeavor to build on past successes and restore a sense of American involvement after the neglect of the second George W. Bush term. Americans will want to bask in the new warmth foreign audiences have for the United States since Obama took office.


Obama’s second stop will be Singapore, where he will attend the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation forum (APEC) leaders’ meeting, an annual event begun by Australia in 1989 and now attended by leaders from 21 Pacific Rim economies. These gatherings originally focused on trade liberalization and facilitation, but after the Asian financial crisis in 1997 and then 9/11, lost their focus and became, for the most part, a talk shop. The Bush administration used APEC as a forum for pushing counter-terror security cooperation, but the organization has proved unprepared and hesitant to go far in this direction.

Among the member economies are the 10 nations of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), who were the core of the original APEC. In the second Bush administration, after a proactive first term in Asia, the ASEAN 10 particularly felt the U.S. was slighting the region, even as China’s attention and investment there were on the rise. Former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice failed to attend two of the ministerial meetings on her watch, giving point to the region’s concerns about neglect.

Because the second-term Bush administration left an impression on the region that it had better things to do with its time, Asians have all the more welcomed higher levels of attention from the new Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and other senior officials. The fact that Clinton made her first foreign trip to the region and included Indonesia was taken as a very positive turnabout in American policy.

The real question is: will this stop in Singapore net some accomplishments? Odds are that it will be longer on good feelings than good deeds. The American public will appreciate Obama’s warm reception, and what it means for America’s improved standing in world opinion, but probably not demand much in the way of results. With U.S. unemployment now over 10 percent, and economic prospects still uncertain, American public attention remains focused primarily on the situation at home.

One “first” on this Asia trip will be Obama’s meeting with the heads of the 10 members of ASEAN on the margins of the APEC forum in Singapore. Former President George W. Bush had intended to hold such a collective summit but was stymied in the past by ASEAN’s insistence that its sister state Burma (Myanmar) not be excluded. Bush’s policy was one of tough sanctions against the Burmese authorities.

The Obama administration wisely reviewed Burma policy early on and concluded that 20 years of tightening sanctions have been unavailing and a new approach is due. But legislation on the books limits the scope of feasible change. With support from Virginia Senator Jim Webb, the administration is exploring official dialogue as a means of increasing humanitarian assistance to the Burmese people. More deeply, it is probing whether the West and ASEAN can find a way to offer the Burmese government a strategic counterweight to China’s stifling embrace. Just before the President’s trip, Assistant Secretary of State Kurt Campbell visited Nyapidaw, the new Burmese capital, to continue a dialogue begun in September in New York on finding a way forward.

For Obama’s visit to Singapore, Burma will send Prime Minister Thein Sein rather than Chairman of State Peace and Development Council Than Shwe, in a compromise that suits both sides.

The APEC meeting itself is likely to congratulate itself for weathering the financial crisis better than other parts of the world. This is not a good year for Americans to urge liberalization of financial markets, but there will be rich agenda on how to regulate them. There are no signs that the Obama administration is about to reverse its current cautious approach to trade and take up that fallen banner with APEC. Too many Congressional votes are at stake on health care reform and other issues dear to the Obama agenda to risk irritating key Democrats in the short term.

Longer term, however, the Obama administration should seriously consider how to reintroduce trade liberalization through APEC, regionally as well as globally. In his meetings with foreign leaders, President Obama has come close to acknowledging the value of free trade to diplomacy and economic well-being, and one can hope he moves policy in that direction once the current high tide of Congressional doubts about trade passes.

ASEAN diplomats excited by a nod from a new American President are already pleading that the presidential summit be made an annual event. Given Obama’s quick recognition of the time-wasting nature of G-8 meetings, however, he is likely to be equally quick in sensing ASEAN’s abiding preference for form over substance.

This touches on another lingering issue in the region: The future of a new regional security architecture. Ideas have been floated for an East Asian Summit, an East Asian Community, reshaping of APEC, expansion of the Six Party Talks with North Korea, and others. The Bush administration was skeptical about most of these ideas, and with some good reasons. Obama will be well advised to continue to observe the emergence of a new architecture from a distance, but to insist that wherever American interests are engaged, the United States is represented.

For the time being, the Obama administration’s increased attention to the region should restore some confidence in the U.S. If the administration can sustain the effort, this may reduce the sense of urgency in the region to find a new structure that bends to China’s growing influence there, while trying to strike a balance with a distracted U.S.

Much, of course, will also depend on how the Obama administration does in revitalizing the American economy. Asians have their doubts about our overhang of debt and obligations to China and others. They want to see the U.S. do well, but will cover risky bets on America with strengthening ties to Beijing if they see Washington continuing to stumble.


President Obama will reach Beijing and Shanghai at the end of next week, as the third stop on his four-nation tour through the region. Though China comes third, it looms largest as the most consequential leg of the voyage. Ever since his campaign for the presidency in 2008, Obama has sought to build on George W. Bush’s relative success in calming ties to push China further to make positive contributions on the three big items of a common agenda: managing the financial crisis, coping with climate change, and security issues such as non-proliferation (a code word for cooperation in constraining Iran and North Korea), and counter-terrorism, especially in Afghanistan.

Obama will also need to cover his political bases back home, by taking on the sensitive agenda of human rights, religious freedom, political reform, Tibet, Taiwan, and Xinjiang. The administration is likely to pursue this mostly in private, with debriefings to the media after the fact. The White House may also undertake some efforts to evoke what Deputy Secretary of State James Steinberg calls “mutual reassurance,” in a new effort to dispel the strategic suspicions that haunt the security establishments on both sides of the Pacific.

Managing the Financial Crisis: Both Obama and his counterpart, Chinese President Hu Jintao, have many early successes to claim with respect to the financial crisis. China’s stimulus package was the world’s largest as a percentage of GDP and produced nominal economic growth of 8.9 percent in the most recent quarter. Obama can also note that the U.S. technically left recession behind, posting 3.5 percent growth in the same period.

How the two leaders explore the weaknesses of each other’s programs remains to be tested. The U.S. will urge further efforts to shift Chinese investment to consumption and to trim excess export capacity. China will want reassurances that the Federal Reserve’s quantitative easing policies will soon come to an end and the U.S. will maintain the value of the dollar. Both leaders will denounce protectionism as they prepare to participate in it.

Climate Change and Copenhagen: With the Copenhagen conference now only weeks away, the U.S.’ and China’s most conspicuous efforts to achieve “deliverables” on this visit will come in the form of cooperation to reduce global warming. Both sides are working up a list of initiatives for shared research and development on new energy-saving and clean air and water technologies. Obama will rely on vague hortatory wordings to support the goals sought at Copenhagen without setting himself up to be blamed for the anticipated shortcomings there. But the U.S. and China remain far apart on specific goals and obligations.

At Chinese insistence, officials are preparing a “Joint Statement” to this end. This will not be a “fourth communiqué,” but a wrap-up of characterizations of goals and shared interests. The idea is to ascribe clearer meaning to the phrase ritualistically used by both sides to characterize U.S.-China relations: “positive, cooperative and comprehensive.”

Iran, North Korea, and Afghanistan: Though China appears to be digging deeper into its established trenches on Iran and North Korea policy, the administration will make an effort to portray positive cooperation toward common non-proliferation goals. Beijing can praise Iran’s willingness to export low-enriched uranium to Russia and France for further enrichment, in spite of Iran’s crippling conditions. The Chinese can also take credit for bringing the North Koreans to the table for talks with the U.S. after Premier Wen Jiabao’s trip to Pyongyang, even though North Korea still plainly intends to retain its nuclear capability.

The U.S., in turn, will repeat its harder-line position. When the Joint Statement drafters visited Beijing in October, they took along the National Security Council’s coordinator of Iran policy, Dennis Ross, in an attempt to entice the Chinese into a tougher posture, without success. China’s goal, as at Copenhagen, remains one of avoiding blame for obstructionism, while keeping its options open to pursue narrower national interests. It remains firmly in position against harsher sanctions on Iran, hiding behind Moscow’s open intransigence.

One Chinese official has privately indicated that Beijing may surprise the media with an agreement to send personnel to Afghanistan to provide police training, but this has not yet been confirmed and would run against recent Chinese policy. The U.S. has also been seeking transit rights for civil supply aircraft to Afghanistan through Chinese airspace and airports. Beijing remains sour on this form of cooperation, citing its displeasure with U.S. refusal to return Uighur “terrorists” to China.

Human Rights, Political Reform, Tibet, Taiwan and Xinjiang: Obama undoubtedly improved the atmospherics for his visit to China by avoiding an early meeting with the Dalai Lama, but at the same time, he set himself up for a host of critical media questions about his handling of sensitive subjects in U.S.-China relations. He will do well to use symbolic gestures to signal his interest in reform, and to call for China to reduce its military threat to Taiwan. Obama’s side visit to Shanghai, largely to plump for private financial support for the U.S. pavilion at the upcoming Shanghai Expo, will create a venue for him to show interest in change in China.

Having chosen to make his major Asia policy speech in Tokyo, Obama will not follow the set-piece approach of previous presidents, who addressed college campuses and took questions. And as the emptiness of much of China’s rhetoric on these sensitive issues becomes increasingly apparent, he may have to increase the voltage of his own rhetoric to compensate for the policy of engagement with Beijing.

At this stage in the Obama presidency, and with a Nobel Peace Price soon to hang around his neck, the media appear to be willing to let him slide on producing “deliverables” with each visit. How long this tolerance will last remains an open question. But for now, it appears Obama will leave Beijing looking more successful for the form of his visit than for its substance.


Obama’s short stay in Seoul was scheduled as an afterthought, but a welcome one, nonetheless. The White House staff naturally sought to limit the President’s travel time, but Obama was persuaded that it would be an unpardonable snub not to stop in South Korea and show his commitment to the alliance. So he will fly in from China late in the evening, and leave after lunch the next day.

Ironically, Seoul looks to be the most substantively -- and one-sidedly -- rewarding stop on the trip. Last Friday, the Korean government announced a new commitment of 300 troops and almost 200 civilians to constitute a Provincial Reconstruction Team for an as-yet unnamed province in Afghanistan. Neither Tokyo nor Beijing is likely to make so substantial a contribution.

For its troubles, Seoul seeks active White House support for the Korea-US Free Trade Agreement (KORUS), which is languishing in Congress. Obama is unlikely to do more than commit to further review of the agreement, which he criticized as falling short in his presidential campaign. Seoul is anxiously hoping that the stand-down on legislation for free trade in Washington ends sooner rather than later, as support is eroding in Korea.

Overall, however, U.S. relations with the Republic of Korea are the best they have been in 12 years. Lee Myung Bak’s conservative government has worked hard to restore a spirit of cooperation and achieve practical results, bringing Washington and Seoul closer on policy toward Pyongyang than they have been in years. So it is fitting that President Obama will depart from Asia on a strong note of American consultation and cooperation with an ally there.