President Obama will soon depart for ten days in the Pacific, attending summits in Hawaii and Indonesia and visiting Australia. In a Q&A, Douglas Paal explains that Obama will use the trip to demonstrate that the United States is serious about its involvement in the Asia-Pacific region, but his substantive agenda appears thin and may disappoint those with high expectations.

In addition to focusing on regional security and making an announcement in Australia about military cooperation, the president will use the visit to champion free trade in the region in an effort to remind the American people that he’s focused on creating jobs at home.

What is on the agenda for President Obama’s trip to the Pacific region?

One of the Obama administration’s ambitions has been to turn America’s focus away from the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan and turn our attention to East Asia and the Pacific. It is a region that has not received the kind of attention that we have typically put into the North Atlantic community, the Middle East, and elsewhere, but where American economic, trade, and financial interests have been growing dramatically over the last twenty years.

It is also a way for the Obama administration to make itself different from the Bush administration, and to a large extent it’s been good at following through on this effort. Secretary Clinton threw herself into it.

This year the administration has a chance to put a lot of what it’s done over the last three years on display. The United States, in rotation, is host of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) Forum, which is going to have a leaders meeting of the 21 member states in Honolulu, Hawaii, President Obama’s home state. Onto that they have added a fill-in trip to Australia that is long overdue.

And then they’re going to go to Bali, where Indonesia is the chair this year of the East Asia Summit (EAS). This is the fifth meeting of the EAS, but it is the first one that an American president has been willing to attend. To be able to attend, we had to sign the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation in the region, which Clinton did in 2009.

The administration now is really trying to sell to the American people that it has done something new, different, and important in the Asia-Pacific region. This’ll take President Obama to the Pacific for almost ten full days, which is a remarkably long amount of time for any president to commit.

How important is the APEC Summit?

APEC started back in the late 1980s and was intended to be a meeting to improve the terms of trade among the partners in trade and finance in the Western Pacific, among some Latin countries—Chile, Peru, Mexico—the United States, and Canada on this side of the Pacific, and almost everyone on the other side.

They had some initial good starts. During the Clinton administration, a leaders meeting was added so it wasn’t just ministers of commerce and finance but also the presidents and prime ministers from various countries getting together. In 1996, they made a big effort to expand free trade in the Asia Pacific with the Bogor Initiative. That fell on hard times right away because of the Asian financial crisis. APEC has been making marginal inroads on trade and economic issues since then, but it hasn’t had any home runs that hit it out of the park, they are more just grinding away.

What is the significance of Obama’s visit to Australia?

The Australian visit is important because it is part of the rectification of America’s alliance posture in East Asia. We had a lot of tensions in Japan because when American bases first went into Okinawa, there were virtually no people there, but it’s filled out and it’s harder to hold military exercises without trampling on farmer’s fields or disturbing urban populations. There’s been pressure to reduce exercises but you need to exercise your military to keep them effective.
An agreement has been reached behind the scenes for the United States to regularly access wide-open spaces in North Western Australia to exercise, with Australians and by ourselves depending on the circumstances. That will be announced when the president gets to Australia.

Some will say this is part of the American effort to strengthen its alliance structure against a rising China. I suppose you can’t say it has nothing to do with a rising China, but in fact it has more to do with better management and organization of our alliance structure in the region.

Australia is a full eight hours further away from China than Japan is by air, let alone by sea, so it’s not like we’re trying to get in China’s face by exercising in Australia. So I hope that people won’t draw too stark an anti-China conclusion of this small announcement.

How is the United States involved in the East Asia Summit?

The East Asia Summit is not a duplicate of APEC. APEC is economic and finance. The East Asia Summit represents an effort by the countries in the region to find some natural architecture on which to build, sort of the way the European Union started with the Coal and Steel Community years back and then developed into the European Community, and then the European Union. They think eventually something like that will happen in Asia. It may take a long time, but the first step forward is this East Asia Summit.

The United States did not want to be excluded, and the Singaporeans, Australians, and others didn’t want to exclude the United States from that part of the world, or themselves. And so finally, President Obama has agreed to participate. There’s a hope that this will be an alternative to the economic focus in APEC. This forum will become the security focus.
Up to now, the agendas have not been about security, they’ve been about issues such as finance, disease, and humanitarian issues. But President Obama’s forerunners have been trying to get some minimum agreement among all the parties on nonproliferation. There have been statements of concern and principle, making some commitments and an agenda for the future, and building out the capacity for some of the small states that can be helpful in nonproliferation.

Agreement on maritime security is also a goal. Maritime security includes piracy and the main choke points for maritime trafficking, but also tensions that have arisen over conflicting territorial claims—not just in the South China Sea, but also in the East China and Yellow Seas.

And so there’s a lot there. But because of all these disputes, this set of issues is more sensitive, and it may be harder to reach minimal agreement on restating principles, on building an agenda, and on building a capacity to deal with it. My guess is that they’ll end up focusing on humanitarian rescue and emergency relief.

What will be discussed at the Association of Southeast Asian Nations meeting?

In Indonesia, the president will hold the second of his summits with the leaders of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). He did another one of these earlier, in 2009. It’s a chance for the leaders to talk about their common concerns and to give the group some recognition as a founding organization in Southeast Asia.

The issues involved are much smaller in scope, partly because it’s a more tightly defined terrain. There are things there like the Southern Mekong Initiative—which Secretary Clinton has taken up—that is an effort to rally resources and technical advice to help better manage the lower Mekong Valley where shortages of water have become severe because of draught and damming upstream in Laos and China on the Mekong River. That won’t make headlines in the United States but it’s a worthwhile objective.

What role will China play in Obama’s trip?

President Obama will have two summit meetings during the course of his trip to the Pacific and just met with China’s President Hu Jintao in France for the G20 meetings, so there will have been quite a lot of summitry. President Hu will also come to the APEC meeting in Honolulu, but it will be Wen Jiabao, the premier of China, who will come to the East Asia Summit in Bali.

It’s been a good thing for the United States and China to have these periodic leaders meetings. When leaders are involved they become action-forcing events. It tends to make bureaucracies toe the line and try to produce positive and constructive results.

The goals here are not too ambitious, but just staying in touch and talking about difficult things is an important forerunner to what will be a very difficult year next year. China is going through its eighteenth Party Congress. Even though it’s not a wide-open election, it certainly has its own internal strains. The United States will have presidential elections, as will South Korea and Taiwan. Leaders who stay in touch and agree on a few common principles and follow-ups will help get us through more turbulent years like what we will face next year.

How effective is Washington’s policy toward Asia?

The United States is more focused on policy in Asia than it was previously. There’s continuity. The Bush administration didn’t forget about Asia, but they did miss a few meetings and for that reason were thought to have other priorities.
The Obama administration has been trying to convey to Asians that we’re very serious about our involvement in the region and that we’ll be staying there and making the meetings. But that doesn’t change our base structure really, it doesn’t change the alliance structure or the partnerships we have.

Obviously, one of the big things that is going to emerge for public consumption out of these meetings is jobs, jobs, jobs. The administration will want to say that what they’re doing with APEC, following the signing of the U.S.-Korea Free Trade Agreement, is to try to break down doors to trade in the region, and to promote Trans-Pacific partnerships—nine countries total, and maybe a tenth, Japan—into a free trade arrangement that would really deepen and widen the existing free trade arrangements that the United States has, with parties from Singapore, to Chile, to Australia, and New Zealand, and see if they can’t broaden it.

The result could be very good, but it’s not going to be an immediate result. But certainly when the president is spending ten days in sun-filled Pacific climates, it will be a good reminder to the American people that he is working on jobs, and I think that’s what a lot of people will be hearing from each of the stops he makes.