Obama seeks stronger ties with Asia’s leaders

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President Barack Obama is to board Air Force One Thursday for a trip to Asia, his first visit to the region since he took office. Obama will stop first in Tokyo, where he will deliver a major speech on his Pacific Rim policy and also meet with Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama. Other countries on the itinerary are China, Singapore and South Korea.

Obama will use the weeklong trip to strengthen ties to Asian leaders and send a strong message that the U.S. is “an Asia-Pacific nation and we are there for the long haul,” as one administration official put it.

Obama will need willing Asian partners as he works to combat nuclear proliferation, reduce the threat of global warming and invigorate the world economy. But in the run-up to the trip, the White House downplayed expectations that concrete agreements would result right away.

Why Asia?

That Obama is leaving the country amid a bitter recession underscores Asia’s importance. “This is the fastest growing economic region in the world,” said Ben Rhodes, a deputy national security adviser.

Obama has already visited Europe and Africa; Asia is a region he can’t neglect. Strains are apparent. Over the past decade, perceptions have risen that China is the dominant player in the region while America’s influence has ebbed. Even a reliable ally, Japan, has complained about being a kind of junior partner to the U.S.

In face-to-face meetings with Asian leaders and more informal encounters with students, Obama will try to rebuild old alliances and create new ones.

What he hopes to accomplish

In a certain sense, White House aides are setting the bar low. They are not promising much in the way of tangible “deliverables” coming out of the trip.

But Obama will try to make headway on a number of economic, environmental and military matters that are crucial to the U.S. He particularly wants the region to pump up consumer purchases so that the U.S. can find a bigger market for its exports.

“The United States does an extraordinary amount of business in this region, and the president is very committed to being competitive in this region in the 21st century,” Rhodes said. Translation: Obama wants to ease the U.S. recession by selling more products to Asia.

Possible pitfalls

With a new president, there is always the possibility of an unguarded comment that could touch off a diplomatic crisis. But foreign policy experts say Obama is showing himself to be a disciplined head of state. Whereas George W. Bush would often freelance on foreign trips ? deviating from the formal agenda ? Obama sticks to the script, they said.

“What I hear about President Obama is he’s very … lawyerlike and he very scrupulously reads his talking points and articulates things in the complete sentences they’re written in, whereas President Bush would mangle or shorten or add colorful anecdotes,” said Michael Green of the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

If Obama faces any real risk, it’s the domestic political backlash that could result if American voters feel he is spending too much time abroad while job losses mount back home.

What’s the key visit of this trip

China, China, China.

Pick an issue that’s important to the U.S. and you’ll find a China connection. North Korean and Iranian nukes? Obama needs China to push for nonproliferation. The recession? If Chinese households spend more, Americans can tap a larger foreign market. Global warming? China is now the largest producer of carbon dioxide, the main global warming pollutant. So it’s no accident that Obama will spend nearly half the trip in China.

Said Jeffrey Bader of the National Security Council: “China is an essential player on the global issues that are at the center of our agenda. … On none of these issues can we succeed without China’s cooperation.”

Reverting to campaign form, Obama will hold a town hall-style meeting with students in Shanghai. He’ll then fly to Beijing for a meeting with President Hu Jintao. Expect Obama to raise the issue of human rights. The president will also work in a sightseeing visit to the Great Wall.

What happens to health care while he’s gone?

The clock is ticking on Obama’s health care plan. He wants to sign legislation before year’s end. A bill has cleared the House, but the Senate has yet to act. Any number of sticking points remain. Obama has been deeply involved in the health care fight, personally lobbying members of the House and Senate. With the president out of the country, the White House loses its salesman-in-chief when the fate of the bill is unclear. But plenty of senior aides are staying behind to prod the Senate.

Why is Obama attending the APEC meeting?

The U.S. is one of 21 members of the organization called Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation. Obama has decided to spend a day in Singapore to attend the group’s conference. He’ll talk about rebalancing the world’s economies, creating conditions for what one White House adviser called “sustainable growth.”

That means the U.S. wants to increase savings and exports, while Asian counterparts ratchet up consumption and imports.

Michael Froman, a White House adviser, said Obama “is focused on making sure that countries are pursuing balanced growth going forward, opening their economies, allowing us to expand our exports to the region and create more export-related jobs here at home.”

Will Obama have any fun on the trip?

Not likely. This will be a frenetic week of travel and summitry. Obama will make the obligatory visit to the Great Wall. But the schedule ? four countries in a week ? doesn’t permit much sightseeing. That won’t please Obama. He likes to play tourist when he’s abroad. He visited the Pyramids during his trip to Cairo in June, bantering with reporters that if he had his druthers he’d “get on a camel.”

Where’s Michelle?

Staying home. The first lady will be with her two young daughters while the president is gone.

Why so much travel?

Obama has been a road warrior. With this trip, he’ll have visited a total of 20 nations in his first year in office ? a record. This isn’t a coincidence. Coming into office, Obama was determined to improve America’s image overseas. The U.S. reputation suffered under eight years of George W. Bush’s go-it-alone swagger, the White House says.

“The problems we face are simply too complex to solve by any one country no matter how strong,” the National Security Council’s Bader said. “The president has recognized that we need active partners around the world to tackle them and building those partnerships is not something that can be done sitting in the Oval Office.”

Obama is enough of a politician to know that voters aren’t necessarily impressed by presidential travel and Nobel prizes. At a news conference in Trinidad just three months into his term, a reporter noted that Obama had been to three continents in three weeks.

Obama’s answer? “Time to get home.”

Any Surprises?

Plenty. One country Obama hasn’t seen yet is Afghanistan. It’s not on the official schedule, but don’t be shocked if Obama takes a detour after leaving South Korea on Nov. 19 and drops in to visit the troops. Also, while he’s in China the president may arrange to see his half brother, Mark Okoth Obama Ndesandjo, who recently came out with a book that described their father as abusive.

One other possible twist: Obama is enmeshed in a protracted review of Afghanistan war strategy. The White House could roll out the new strategy during the trip, or confirm details about new troop levels.

(c) 2009, Tribune Co. Source: McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.