7 Days, 4 Countries, 5 Things to Watch As Obama Returns to Asia

PHOTO: Barack Obama waves as he walks down the stairs from Air Force One at Fiumicino Airport on March 28, 2014 in Rome, Italy.
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For President Obama, it’s the “pivot” that never quite made the full turn. His “deliberate and strategic decision” in 2011 to reorient U.S. foreign policy toward Asia has been repeatedly distracted by crises elsewhere.

This week, Obama tried again to return to message with a seven-day, four-country swing through Japan, South Korea, Malaysia and Philippines. He plans to reassert the U.S. as a Pacific nation, while charting what he’s called a “larger and long-term role” in the region’s future, officials say.

Here are five things to watch as he makes his fifth trip to Asia as president:

1. The China Factor

Obama won’t visit China on this trip, but the rising economic and military power casts a long shadow. Its increasingly assertive role in the region has unsettled some longstanding U.S. allies, who question whether the U.S. remains an effective counterbalance.

The federal government shutdown last October scuttled Obama’s participation in key Asian regional summits. Since then, the standoff in the Ukraine, war in Syria, and Israeli-Palestinian peace talks have dominated the U.S. diplomatic agenda.

“The American government being preoccupied with Ukraine or whatever, doesn’t mean we aren’t getting sufficient attention,” said one senior Japanese government official. “But it is now good for him to come and show and tell” about his strategy.

White House officials reject the notion that the trip is aimed at containing Chinese influence, calling it a “positive trip with a positive agenda.” Still, Obama’s visit appears designed at least in part to demonstrate the type of regional player America wants to be.

It comes at a critical moment, with some U.S. allies privately concerned that Russia’s recent incursion into Ukraine – unchallenged militarily by the West – could embolden China in territorial disputes, including one over Japan’s Senkaku Islands.

“I don’t think [China] would be bold enough to go after the Russian example,” said the Japanese official. But, “we haven’t come to a definitive conclusion. We have to be careful to judge the impact on China” of what Russia is doing in Ukraine.

Economically, Obama will be pushing a Pacific free-trade pact that excludes China and specifically calls on parties to source some goods among themselves – a potential shot across China’s bow.

Look for Obama to delicately reaffirm U.S. security alliances while not appearing to do so in a way threatening to China. He will stress what officials call a “rule-based order” for the region – diplo-speak, directed at China, for obedience to international economic and military norms.

How will China respond? Its defense minister offered one clue, defiantly asserting last week along his American counterpart Chuck Hagel that the Chinese military “can never be contained.”

2. American Autos, Asian Markets and a Trade Deal Many Dems Oppose

For years, the Obama administration has been pushing for a sweeping free trade deal between the U.S. and 11 other countries in the Asia-Pacific region called the Trans-Pacific Partnership. It could mean more American-made cars and other exports flooding into Asian markets and translate to more jobs at home, they say.

U.S. negotiators have not finalized the deal ahead of Obama’s trip, but the administration says one is on the horizon. By some estimates, the so-called “TPP” could boost U.S. exports by more than $120 billion a year.

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