WASHINGTON – U.S. President Barack Obama has begun his first postelection trip abroad – a whirlwind tour of three South Asian countries aimed at reinforcing the White House’s foreign policy pivot toward the Asia Pacific region.
The pivot is seen, at least in part, as an effort to counter China's rising influence in the region.
In a briefing for reporters, Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes said the White House sees the Asia Pacific as critical “to the future of the United States, both economically and in terms of our political and security objectives in the world.”
“Continuing to fill in our pivot to Asia will be a critical part of the president’s second term and ultimately his foreign policy legacy," Rhodes said. "We see this as an opportunity to dramatically increase U.S. exports, to increase U.S. leadership in the fastest growing part of the world, and in advancing our values as well as our interests, which this trip is designed to do.”
Obama is en route to Thailand, where he’ll have a royal audience on November 18 with King Bhumibol Adulyadej and meet with Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra.
Then he’ll become the first sitting president to visit Burma (also known as Myanmar), which is emerging from decades of dictatorship.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton visited the former military dictatorship last year as part of Obama’s foreign policy doctrine of reaching out to pariah states.
Rhodes said Obama’s trip is not a "victory" lap but an opportunity to try and “influence [Burmese leaders] to keep … going” with reforms.
In addition to meeting with President Thein Sein, Obama will give a speech at the University of Rangoon, meet with recently released political prisoners, and visit opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi at her residence.
Burma’s fragile progress has recently been overshadowed by bloody ethnic violence along its western border against Muslim Rohingyas. Sectarian violence has killed hundreds and more than 30,000 have fled.
Rhodes said Obama will address “the broad context of ethnic reconciliation and national reconciliation” in an attempt to bring down tensions.
The National Security Council’s senior director for Multilateral Affairs and Human Rights, Samantha Power, said that by visiting Burma, Obama “is sending a signal to other countries where reform either is not happening or repression is happening” and saying, “We will meet you, action for action.”
Obama’s last stop will be Cambodia, where he will attend a meeting of the Association of East Asian Nations and take part in the East Asia Summit.
Washington is keen to strengthen military and trade ties with countries that want the United States to counter China’s rising power, especially in the South China Sea, where competing territorial claims threaten global trade routes.
Joshua Kulantzick, a Southeast Asia fellow at the Council of Foreign Relations, said by participating in these meetings, Obama will influence how that critical dispute is mediated.
“[Washington’s] quote unquote 'pivot' is, I think, driven by primarily the desire by most of those countries for some balancing because they’re concerned about China’s actions," Kulantzick said. "Certainly, Vietnam and the Philippines are looking for an outside power and balancer because they’re concerned about the South China Sea. Malaysia is, to some extent as well. All the countries except maybe for Cambodia, maybe Thailand, are concerned about the growing aggressiveness of China’s maritime behavior in the region.”
Obama’s seat at the table signals the arrival of the United States as a major player in the Asia Pacific -- a development China might not welcome but certainly can’t ignore.