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Obama's Asia trip to focus on tighten ties

| Friday, Nov. 5, 2010

President Obama embarks today on a foreign trip focused on Asian nations that he believes are essential to the recovery of a stumbling American economy, just days after voters dealt Democrats a stinging defeat.

Presidents often emphasize foreign policy during difficult political times at home, and Obama's only extended foray outside the country this year will take him to a quartet of democracies where he is viewed more favorably than he is in the United States.

But among his challenges will be convincing his counterparts in Asia and at two economic summits that he has not been weakened politically by the midterm setback and that issues such as free trade -- a divisive subject within the Democratic Party -- remain central to his ambitions in the region.

"He'll look pretty beaten up," said Douglas Paal, a National Security Council official for Asia in the Reagan and George H.W. Bush administrations who now is vice president of studies at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. "But the practical reality is that the president of the United States is a big deal -- defeated in an election or not."

The fact that Obama has chosen Asia represents a far-reaching policy decision that the administration does not want lost on the countries he will visit.

During the transition, the administration-in-waiting began an intensive assessment of the American position abroad to identify where it was committing too many resources and where it needed to devote more. Asia rose to the top of the second category.

Obama and his foreign policy team believed the Middle East, in particular, was occupying too much attention. They concluded that, in the long term, the economies and ambitions of China, Japan, India and other Asian nations could prove more important to U.S. interests.

Since then, Obama has worked to reorient America's foreign policy toward Asian nations, whose rising middle class could drive U.S. economic growth with its hunger for exports even as American consumers retrench. He will underscore the point on his first day in India, at the G-20 summit in Seoul, and in Japan at the Asian-Pacific Economic Cooperation conference that will conclude the trip.

Obama, who traveled to Asia his first year in office, has increased the American presence in several Asian economic forums and is joining another. And he has expanded defense cooperation with some Asian nations, including ones on his itinerary.

"The United States was not as present in the region as our interests dictated we should be," said Thomas Donilon, Obama's national security adviser. "We had a vision, and now we're at the center of the emerging security and economic architecture in Asia. ... We are not going to be the administration that lets the rise of Asia pass us by."

Obama will speak on his first day to the U.S.-India Business Council. The appearance is designed to present India, a country of 1.2 billion people that expects to be the world's third-largest economy within a decade, as a place that will create U.S. jobs, not just take them in the form of outsourcing.

Administration officials believe the message is an important one to deliver after a midterm election when jobs -- and their disappearance overseas -- were potent issues on the campaign trail. Obama has frequently criticized the outsourcing of U.S. jobs -- statements that have rankled some in India.

"We hope that there is a better understanding that India and the work we do is actually a solution rather than the problem that it is made out to be," said Som Mittal, president of India's National Association of Software and Services Companies.

Nearly as important as the countries Obama is visiting on this trip is the one he is not: China.

His tour of economically potent Asian democracies -- India, Indonesia, South Korea and Japan -- is a tacit challenge to the Chinese economic model of a heavy state hand wielded by an unelected government.

"The grander strategy here is exactly what he is doing -- that is, going to visit key allies and not talking much about China," said Dan Blumenthal, a resident fellow at the conservative American Enterprise Institute.

Senior administration officials say Asian nations have counted on U.S. security to build their economies, something China has benefited from because of the relative stability thousands of U.S. troops have brought to the Korean peninsula.

But China's neighbors also look at its rise uneasily and want the United States to work as an economic and security counterweight.

Administration officials say the United States is doing so by joining the East Asia Summit, a 16-nation forum that includes the region's most important economies, and participating regularly in regional summits, something rarely done in the waning years of the Bush administration.

"We want to shape the context in which China's emergence is occurring," said Jeff Bader, the National Security Council's senior director for Asian affairs. "We want to ensure that China's emergence, China's rise, contributes rather than detracts from Asian stability, and that's not going to happen if we allow our other relationships in the region to fray."

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