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.

“We expect that … we will be able to conclude an agreement,” said National Security Adviser Susan Rice last week. “This remains a very important aspect of our rebalance to the Asia-Pacific region, one that holds great promise for the countries in the region as well as for the United States.”

A major breakthrough on this trip is not expected, sources say. But Obama will push for new progress, despite deep election-year skepticism from members of his own party and political allies at home.

“The data is in. It’s irrefutable. We know the impact this trade deal would have on jobs. We have seen this movie several times before,” said Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn.

Some American automakers and labor unions say previous free-trade deals in Asia have done less than expected to boost American exports. Industry lobbyists point to the 2012 Korea free-trade pact as sowing doubt about the latest effort.

Will there be any substantive progress on a TPP deal, and will Obama speak out more forcefully against domestic opposition? It’s worth watching.

“Are we coming to a final point and a mile to go, or are there five miles to go? Not sure,” said one Asian official familiar with the negotiations, speaking on condition of anonymity.

3. Tribute to U.S. Troops in Asia, Past and Present

With the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, many Americans may have lost sight of the fact that there are more than 80,000 U.S. troops deployed across the Asia-Pacific region, including 28,500 in South Korea and 38,000 in Japan.

President Obama this week will make a point of honoring U.S. service members and their families in Asia, while implicitly underscoring America’s military commitment to regional security.

In Seoul, Obama will visit the Combined Forces Command – the joint U.S.-South Korean military headquarters -- for a briefing on North Korean provocations and a speech to troops, said Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes.

Later in Malaysia, which is not a treaty ally, Obama is expected to highlight recent military collaboration in the search for flight MH370 as an example of improved bilateral relations.

In the Philippines, Obama will address U.S. and Filipino service members and veterans at Fort Bonifacio “to underscore our deep security cooperation over the years, but also our security cooperation in the current environment in the Asia-Pacific,” Rhodes said.

Before returning to Washington, Obama will also make a poignant visit to the American cemetery in Manila, the final resting place for more than 17,000 U.S. service members after World War II.

4. History-Making Visit to Malaysia

It’s been almost 50 years since a U.S. president set foot in Malaysia. The last was President Johnson in 1966, though President Clinton almost made it there in 1998 until a U.N. showdown with Iraq over weapons inspectors forced a last minute substitution (Vice President Gore went in his place.)

Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak, who has made improving ties with the U.S. a goal, will roll out the red carpet for Obama. Najib will host a state dinner and cultural visits to sites in Kuala Lumpur, including a stop at the National Mosque and the Malaysian Global Innovation and Creativity Center.

At Malaya University, Obama will host a town hall meeting with young leaders across Southeast Asia, according to the White House. He will unveil a new initiative aimed at building relationships among those leaders and coordinating ties with the U.S.

5. Trail of Tragedies: Consoler-in-Chief Goes Global

One eerie nexus of all the countries Obama will visit is hard to ignore: each has recently experienced a horrific national tragedy. In 2011, a massive earthquake off the coast of Japan triggered a powerful tsunami and nuclear meltdown. A powerful super typhoon last November – Typhoon Haiyan -- swept across the Philippines, killing more than 6,000 people. And two ongoing disasters – the disappearance of Malaysian Air flight 370 and the capsized ferry in South Korea – have tugged on heartstrings of observers worldwide.

At this point, the president has no scheduled events related to the tragedies, administration officials say, but he will no doubt highlight U.S. humanitarian assistance in each instance.

“The United States has been able to lend prompt and very effective support to our friends and partners in support of their response,” Rice said last week. “We have demonstrated throughout … that we are there for our friends and partners when they need us most.”

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