President Obama leaves today on a four-country weeklong tour of Asia, his first trip to the region as president. But unlike previous presidential overseas trips this year, it is unlikely to produce any substantial agreements on the key issues Obama faces: climate change, North Korea's nuclear ambitions and a free-trade agreement with South Korea.
Obama delayed his trip by a day so he could attend the memorial service at Fort Hood Tuesday and hold a meeting Wednesday with his national security team to continue deliberations on an Afghanistan strategy. The president will touchdown in Alaska to meet with U.S. troops and deliver remarks at Elmendorf Air Force Base in Anchorage before continuing on to Asia.
The president has a wide-ranging agenda for this first trip to Asia. White House officials said this week he will address trade issues, climate change, the war in Afghanistan and nuclear non-proliferation, including continued talks on Iran and North Korea.
Obama will make stops in the next week in Japan, Singapore, China and South Korea, and will meet with the leaders of all four nations. He will also hold side meetings with other world leaders such as Russian President Dmitri Medvedev.
The president's trip is built around the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum, which he will attend in Singapore this weekend. He will also hold a multilateral meeting with the 10 members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, a first for a U.S. president.
"Right now, 1.6 million jobs in the United States are associated with exports to Asia," said Jeffrey Bader, National Security Council senior director for East Asian affairs. "And, as the Asian region grows, we could see hundreds of thousands of more jobs being created there as well."
Asia is "the fastest-growing region in the world," with 7 percent growth expected in the next year, he said.
"It already takes about a quarter of our exports, and those exports are expected to increase as the region grows and as they pursue balanced growth as the region becomes more open to our exports," he said. "And, so, we see a lot of jobs being created through our engagement in Asia."
No Agreement on Climate Change With China
While the trip provides Obama the opportunity for face-to-face talks on a host of key issues, it is unlikely he will strike any significant agreements.
Michael Froman, deputy assistant to the president and deputy national security adviser for international economic affairs, laid out this week modest expectations on the issue of climate change.
"We do not expect that Beijing is going to produce a climate change agreement," he told reporters. "But we do expect that the leaders will spend time together discussing how best to proceed and how to work together to make Copenhagen [the summit] a success."
Todd Stern, U.S. special envoy for climate change, said last month that while the United States and China will aim to find common ground during the president's visit, there will be no agreements on climate change before the summit in Copenhagen in December.
"We are not trying to cut some separate deals," Stern said. "We'll try to get as much alliance as possible [between China and the United States] to get a deal in Copenhagen."
White House: No Decision on U.S. Marine Base on Okinawa
In Japan, Obama will meet with Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama and hold a joint news conference.
The president will deliver a speech at which he will "discuss his view of American engagement in Asia as it relates to the political, security and economic dimensions, and to also reaffirm the strength of the U.S.-Japanese alliance," said Ben Rhodes, deputy national security advisor for strategic communications.
Before leaving Japan, Obama will also meet with the emperor and empress.
Overshadowing the stop in Japan is an ongoing dispute about the Marine Corps Air Station Futenma on the Japanese island of Okinawa. The two nations agreed in 2006 to shut down the air base and replace it with a facility in a more remote part of the island.
Hatoyama indicated this summer, before his election, that the base should be moved completely off Okinawa, a statement that was greeted positively by residents who have pushed for a reduction in the U.S. force presence there.
No final decision on the Okinawa issue is expected on this trip. Bader said it was not "ripe for resolution or a focus" of the president's visit and discussion will continue later to work out differences.
"I don't see the Okinawa base issue being a dominant or essential issue on the visit," Bader said. "We're having discussions with foreign ministry, with the Japanese defense forces and the prime minister's office on the issue. The new Japanese government is reviewing how it wishes to move forward on it."
In Singapore this weekend, Obama will participate in the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum and White House officials said the president will follow up on commitments made at the G20 economic summit in Pittsburgh.
Ongoing Disputes Stall Free-Trade Agreement with South Korea
Obama will meet with Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong and hold separate bilateral meetings with the presidents of Russia and Indonesia.
In China, where bootleg copies of Obama speeches are sold on the street and young people where T-shirts with his face emblazoned on the front, the president will host a town hall-style meeting in Shanghai with Chinese youth and take questions from the audience.
"He certainly looks forward to this opportunity and felt that it was important, given the deepening engagement not just between the U.S. and Chinese governments, but really among the American and Chinese people, that he take an opportunity, as he has in other countries, to engage young people in a dialogue about the future of this relationship," Rhodes said.
In Beijing, Obama will meet with Chinese President Hu Jintao, as the economy, nonproliferation, the six-party talks, energy-climate issues and human rights (including Tibet) top the agenda.
The two leaders will hold a joint news conference and China will also host a state dinner for the president's visit.
In Seoul, the president will meet with President Lee Myung-Bak, and trade issues and continuing work on North Korea's nuclear ambitions will be front and center.
"North Korea, obviously, will be a principal focus of this stop," Rhodes said, "We'll be talking about how we reengage in the six-party process with the agenda of denuclearization and reaffirmation of previous commitments."
Also on the table is the ongoing discussion about a free-trade agreement with South Korea, which has been pending for two years. The U.S.-South Korea free-trade agreement, known as KORUS FTA, was signed in 2007 but has not been ratified by the two nations because of disputes about access to auto markets and barriers on beef trade.
The Obama administration's position has been that the president will not send the trade agreement to Congress for ratification until South Korea agrees to open its markets to U.S. autos and other export products.
In remarks to the U.S.-Korea Business Council last week, U.S. Trade Representative Ron Kirk said the Obama administration is working toward a resolution, but it is up to South Korea to make concessions.
"Our market is open to Korean autos," Kirk said. "All we are asking for is for our own auto companies to be able to compete on a level playing field in the Korean market."
A bipartisan group of members of Congress sent a letter to Obama last week urging him to quickly ratify the trade deal with South Korea but some Democrats on Capitol Hill are concerned that the agreement would result in a backlash from labor unions.
"South Korea is the world's 14th largest economy and is already our seventh largest trading partner," the bipartisan congressional group wrote in its letter to Obama. "KORUS is the most economically beneficial trade agreement the United States has negotiated in 15 years."
The U.S. Chamber of Commerce is pushing the Obama administration to quickly wrap up the trade agreement and says jobs are on the line.
"Nearly 350,000 American jobs are at risk if this trade accord with Korea isn't approved," said Myron Brilliant, the Chamber's senior vice president of international affairs and outgoing U.S.-Korea Business Council president.
"As U.S. unemployment hits double digits, this agreement is an immediate job-creating stimulus."
Kirk acknowledged that the trade agreement "has the potential to bring significant economic and strategic benefits to both countries" but did not signal that any agreement was on the horizon.
Froman, the deputy national security adviser for international economic affairs, said Obama "looks forward to having a discussion with the Koreans" on the free-trade agreement but did not indicate that any resolution was pending.
The president will also visit U.S. troops stationed in South Korea before heading back to Washington next Thursday.
No Indonesia Stop for Obama
White House officials noted on a conference call with reporters this week that Obama is the first president with "an Asia-Pacific orientation," pointing to his upbringing in Hawaii and Indonesia, although he'll bypass the county this trip.
"He understands that the future of our prosperity and our security is very much tied to this part of the world," Rhodes said.