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Q & A: Obama taking his fence-mending campaign to Asia

The president will visit four nations and attend an Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation conference. He'll try to rebuild old alliances and create new ones.

November 13, 2009|By Peter Nicholas

Reporting from Washington — President Obama is making his first visit to Asia since taking office.

Obama will stop first in Tokyo, where he will deliver a major speech on his Pacific Rim policy and also meet with Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama.

Other countries on the itinerary are China, Singapore and South Korea. Obama will use the weeklong trip to strengthen ties to Asian leaders and send a strong message that the U.S. is "an Asia-Pacific nation and we are there for the long haul," as one administration official put it.

Obama will need willing Asian partners as he works to combat nuclear proliferation, reduce the threat of global warming and invigorate the world economy. But before the trip, the White House downplayed expectations that concrete agreements would result right away.

Why Asia?

That Obama is leaving the United States amid a bitter recession underscores Asia's importance. "This is the fastest-growing economic region in the world," said Ben Rhodes, a deputy national security advisor. Obama has already visited Europe and Africa; Asia is a region he can't neglect.

Strains are apparent. Over the last decade, perceptions have risen that China is the dominant player in the region while American influence has ebbed. Even a reliable ally, Japan, has complained about being a kind of junior partner to the U.S.

In face-to-face meetings with Asian leaders, Obama will try to rebuild old alliances and create new ones.

What does he hope to accomplish?

In a certain sense, White House aides are setting the bar low. They are not promising much in the way of tangible "deliverables" coming out of the trip. But Obama will seek agreement on a number of economic, environmental and military matters that are crucial to the United States. He particularly wants the region to pump up consumer purchases so the U.S. can find a bigger market for its exports.

"The United States does an extraordinary amount of business in this region, and the president is very committed to being competitive in this region in the 21st century," Rhodes said. Translation: Obama wants to ease the U.S. recession by selling more products to Asia.

What are the possible pitfalls?

With a new president, there is always the possibility of an unguarded comment that could touch off a diplomatic crisis. But foreign policy experts say Obama is showing himself to be a disciplined head of state. Whereas George W. Bush would often freelance on foreign trips -- deviating from the formal agenda -- Obama sticks to the script, they said.

If Obama faces any real risk, it's the domestic political backlash that could result if American voters feel that he is spending too much time abroad while job losses mount back home.

What's the key visit?

China, China, China.

Pick an issue that's important to the U.S., and you'll find a China connection.

North Korean and Iranian nukes? Obama needs China to push for nonproliferation.

The recession? If Chinese households spend more, Americans can tap a larger foreign market.

Global warming? China is now the largest producer of carbon dioxide, the main global warming pollutant.

So it's no accident that Obama will spend nearly half the trip in China.

What happens to healthcare while he's gone?

The clock is ticking on Obama's healthcare plan. He wants to sign legislation before year's end. A bill has cleared the House, but the Senate has yet to act. Any number of sticking points remain.

With the president out of the country, the White House loses its salesman in chief with the fate of the overhaul unclear. But plenty of senior aides are staying behind to prod the Senate.

Why is Obama attending the APEC meeting?

The U.S. is one of 21 members of the organization called Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation. Obama has decided to spend a day in Singapore to attend the group's conference.

He'll talk about re-balancing the world's economies, creating conditions for what one White House advisor called "sustainable growth." That means the U.S. wants to increase savings and exports, while Asian counterparts ratchet up consumption and imports.

Will Obama have any fun on the trip?

Not likely. This will be a frenetic week of travel and summitry. Obama will make the obligatory visit to the Great Wall. But the schedule -- four countries in a week -- doesn't permit much sight-seeing.

That won't please Obama. He likes to play tourist when he's abroad. He visited the Pyramids during his trip to Cairo in June, bantering with reporters that, if he had his druthers, he'd "get on a camel."

Where's Michelle?

Staying home. The first lady will be with her two young daughters while the president is gone.

Why so much travel?

With this trip, Obama will have visited 20 nations in his first year in office -- a record. This isn't a coincidence. Coming into office, Obama was determined to improve America's image overseas.

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