After a convincing re-election victory, US President Barack Obama looks set for another four years of reorienting the US toward Asia at a time of uncertainty over a rising China.
In his first foreign trip since Tuesday’s election, Obama plans a historic visit to encourage reforms in Myanmar — seen as a key success during his first term — and will go to Thailand and Cambodia.
US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and US Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta will also head to Asia this month. While the timing is coincidental — Obama is attending the East Asia Summit in Cambodia — experts saw a powerful sign.
“Actions speak louder than words; the visit shouts Obama’s intent for a purposeful focus on Asia in his second term,” said Ernie Bower of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, saying that the trip is the first by a president solely to Southeast Asia since the Vietnam War.
Obama spent part of his childhood in Indonesia and took office vowing to pay more attention to Southeast Asia, charging that the dynamic and mostly US-friendly region had been neglected as former US president George W. Bush’s administration was absorbed by wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
“Though issues like Syria are not going to go away, the fact that the US will not be at war by 2014, when it pulls combat troops out of Afghanistan, should mean Asia can move up on the administration’s second-term agenda,” said Nina Hachigian, a senior fellow at the left-leaning Center for American Progress.
Obama initially focused on cooperation with China, but later hardened his line, boosting the US military role in the region as Southeast Asian countries and US ally Japan accused Beijing of growing assertiveness in territorial disputes.
The US election came just before China launched a once-a-decade leadership change, with Chinese Vice President Xi Jinping (習近平) — whom the Obama administration has courted in a series of high-level meetings — set to succeed Chinese President Hu Jintao (胡錦濤).
China had criticized Obama’s rival, Republican hopeful Mitt Romney, who accused Obama of being too soft on issues, including human rights, and especially trade practices, such as Beijing’s allegedly undervalued currency.
After Obama’s victory, Xinhua news agency ran a commentary urging the US administration to “rethink its policy on China.”
It called for cooperation on “common challenges like terrorism [and] climate change.”
One question mark that remains is how Obama’s next team will impact Asia policy. Clinton has made the continent a priority, but she plans to leave the administration, along with her energetic top diplomat on East Asia, Kurt Campbell.