5 Things to Watch for During President Obama's Asia Trip
Fresh off the midterm loss, Obama is shifting his focus to foreign policy.
By MARY BRUCE
November 10, 2014, 12:04 PM
• 5 min read
BEIJING -- Fresh off the bruising midterm loss, President Obama is shifting his focus to a host of foreign policy challenges during a dizzying week-long Asia trip.
In eight days, Obama will visit three countries (China, Myanmar and Australia), attend three different summits with world leaders and cross 16 time zones. Here’s a preview of what’s to come:
1. The Pivot That Wasn’t
It’s been three years since the Obama administration announced it would “pivot to Asia” as American troops pulled out of Iraq and Afghanistan. Now, after a host of other crises pulled the administration’s attention away from the region, this trip presents the best, final chance for the president to cement his foreign policy legacy in Asia. During stops in Beijing, Myanmar and Australia, Obama is expected to try to kick-start his “rebalance” and reiterate his commitment to the region. In addition, the president will have to dispel the notion that his political power is waning in the wake of the Democrats’ midterm loss, especially to the increasingly assertive Chinese President Xi Jinping, who is on a charm offensive of his own as he hosts regional powers in Beijing this week.
Obama makes his second trip to Myanmar as president later this week, but the timing is tricky. Obama considers the opening of Myanmar to be one of his major diplomatic achievements, but the fledgling democracy appears to be sliding backward and reforms are languishing. He will have to walk a fine line as he meets with President Thein Sein and presses him on the pace of reforms and growing human rights issues like the increased violence targeted at Myanmar’s Muslim minorities, especially the Rohingya, who the Myanmar/Burma government refuses to recognize officially.
“The United States recognizes the progress that Burma has made but notes that real challenges remain and missteps have been made in the course of this transition,” National Security Adviser Susan Rice told reporters at the White House ahead of the trip. “We will stress that our engagement is helping to keep reforms on track, and we’re prepared to continue the support ... the government as it confronts its remaining challenges.”
After attending the East Asia Security summit in Naypyidaw, President Obama will meet with opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi in Yangon. Though her party is very popular, Suu Kyi is unable to run for president because of a constitutional provision that bans people with foreign spouses or children from holding the office (her husband and children are British). All eyes are on whether or not Obama may call for the government to amend its constitution. He hinted at it in a recent call with Suu Kyi, during which they discussed “how the United States can support efforts to promote tolerance, respect for diversity, and a more inclusive political environment,” according to the White House.
4. Skateboarding in Naypyidaw
Obama’s first stop in Myanmar will be to the newly-built capital city of Naypyidaw. The city was inaugurated as the new capital just eight years ago and is one of the world’s fastest-growing cities, although much of it remains empty or under construction. It will be a sight to see the president’s motorcade drive down the massive 20-lane road leading up to the parliament building, as Obama becomes the first American president to visit the new capital.
“For those of you who are skateboarders, it’s sort of a paradise for you; there’s 10-lane roads that have no cars on them; you’d really enjoy that,” Ernest Bower, senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, joked while previewing the trip.
5. Possible Putin Run-In
There’s nothing formal on the schedule, but President Obama and Russian President Putin will likely come face-to-face on the sidelines of APEC in Beijing or the G-20 Summit in Brisbane, Australia, at the end of the week. Amid disputes over Ukraine, U.S.-Russian relations are at their lowest point since the Cold War.
“I imagine, as in the past, that there will be an opportunity for the G-20 leaders to engage informally on the margins. There is no formal bilateral meeting scheduled or planned, but I wouldn’t be at all surprised if they had some informal communication,” Rice said.
As always, it was be interesting to see how the political foes interact (cue the body-language experts).