WASHINGTON AND TOKYO — With unemployment topping 10% and his healthcare plan still facing Senate action, President Obama has plenty to keep him busy at home. But on Thursday, he will head to Asia for more than a week, a trip that underscores the White House's conviction that a close partnership with China and other Pacific Rim nations is crucial to American interests.
Obama is scheduled to stop in Japan, Singapore, China and South Korea, bringing to 20 the number of nations he has visited since taking office in January. That's a record, according to the Obama administration; no other president has traveled to so many countries in his first year in office.
Although the centerpiece of the trip is China, the loudest pre-journey reaction has come from Japan. On Sunday, thousands of demonstrators rallied in Okinawa and Tokyo over the future of a Marine base on the distant southern island, home to roughly half of the 50,000 U.S. troops stationed in Japan.
The protesters sought to put pressure on Japan to stop construction of a new U.S. military airfield with two runways, part of a 2006 agreement between the two nations.
In the ritzy Ginza district of Tokyo, hundreds of people rallied, waving banners with slogans such as "Obama take the bases back with you" and "You got the Peace Prize, so give us peace in Okinawa."
Obama administration officials have said they hope to drive home the message that the U.S. wants an enduring relationship with Asia that is not defined solely by the fight against terrorism.
"Through President Obama's trip, I think it will be vividly clear to the peoples of Asia that the U.S. is here to stay in Asia," said Jeffrey Bader, director of Asian affairs at the National Security Council, in a speech at the Brookings Institution on Friday.
"We are a vital contributor to Asian security and economic success. Asia, in turn, has a profound impact on our lives through trade, through our alliances and partnerships, and through the immigrants who have come to the U.S. to enormously enrich our country in every domain," said Bader, whose speech was circulated by White House aides. "As Asia continues to grow and as new groupings and structures take shape, the U.S. will be a player and participant on the ground floor, not a distant spectator."
At the heart of the White House strategy is China, which figures into virtually every major U.S. objective: ensuring that North Korea and Iran forswear nuclear weapons; tackling the threat posed by global warming, and hastening the worldwide economic recovery.
"None of these challenges can be addressed without intensive involvement by China," Bader said.
The main issue is North Korea. The U.S. has been in sustained talks with China about getting the government in Pyongyang to drop its pursuit of nuclear weapons.
"There is no subject that has more preoccupied us in our relationship with China than North Korea," Bader said. "President Obama has made several phone calls to President Hu [Jintao]. If you did a pie chart on how much time was spent on issues, North Korea would dominate."
Though he will meet with Asian leaders, Obama will also try to make a connection with the local population. He'll do some sightseeing in China, visiting the Great Wall and perhaps the Forbidden City. Comfortable in the town hall-style format, he may hold such a forum with students in Shanghai, which could be an occasion for him to address the sensitive issue of human rights.
Bonnie Glaser, a China expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said, "I think that this is not an issue that the president will shy away from. It is important for him to say something on the importance of human rights on our agenda with China.
"I don't think that's going to translate into him meeting with dissidents -- not there; potentially down the road here."
Japan will also require delicate diplomacy, analysts said. The new government of Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama has expressed a preference for a more equitable relationship with Washington. A sticking point is the Okinawa base. Hatoyama has said he would like the base moved off the island as a gesture to unhappy residents living nearby.
"Obama's visit to Tokyo, and his reception by the Japanese public, will be a telling indicator of whether the political winds in Japan are conducive to progress on the base realignment process," said Weston Konishi, adjunct fellow at the Mansfield Foundation in Washington.
Bader, in his speech, indicated that the U.S. wants to be cooperative. He said Washington is open to "a lighter . . . military footprint" -- both in Japan and South Korea.
"In neither case will our forward military presence be reduced," he said, "but in both cases it will be more acceptable to the populations whose security it contributes to so importantly."