Obama trip emphasises role of Pacific rim

Obama trip emphasises role of Pacific rim

Countries along the South China Sea have been eager for the US to increase its presence in the region

Calling the region critical to economic growth and national security, he said, “I want everyone to know from the outset, my administration is committed to strengthening our ties with each country individually but also with the region’s institutions.”

The American focus on Asia has been raising tensions with an ever more powerful China, which has been increasingly assertive in the region. On Saturday morning Obama held a previously unscheduled meeting with Prime Minister Wen Jiabao of China. Administration officials said Obama and Wen talked briefly on Friday night at a dinner for the gathered leaders and agreed to meet the next morning. Earlier on Friday, Wen had pushed back against the United States, saying that “outside forces should not, under any pretext” interfere in a regional fight over the control of the South China Sea.

Obama spoke Friday at the opening of the annual meeting of the 10-nation Association of Southeast Asian Nations, which does not include China. Before that session, he met separately with the leaders of India, Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines.

On Saturday, Obama became the first American president to participate at the larger East Asia Summit meeting, which does include China as well as Russia, India and Japan, before he was scheduled to return to Washington after eight days of Pacific Rim diplomacy.

Good engagement

During their Saturday meeting, Obama and Wen focused on economic issues, according to Thomas E Donilon, the president’s national security adviser, who added that, “It was a good engagement.” Obama pressed the same points about China’s currency policy that he made with Chinese President Hu Jintao in Hawaii.

“It was important, I think, to continue that conversation, because, as you know, Premier Wen is the principal economic manager in China,” Donilon said. “They briefly talked about the South China Sea and the East Asia Summit at the end of that — because it was a short meeting.”

The summit meeting on Friday was eclipsed by news of a diplomatic opening between the United States and Myanmar now that its military has loosened its chokehold on freedoms there. Obama said that he was sending Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton to Myanmar, also known as Burma, to test its government’s sincerity about democratic reforms and human rights.

The countries along the South China Sea have been especially eager for the United States to increase its presence in the region as a check on China’s ambitions.
Obama’s trip has been something of a balancing act in which he is trying to meld geopolitics and domestic concerns.

Up to the time of his departure from Washington, there was speculation that Obama would skip the Indonesia trip, given the political risks of being away from the United States during a time of high unemployment and discontent over the economy.

Against that backdrop, Obama has sought throughout his travels from Hawaii — where he played host to an Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation free trade forum — to Australia and Indonesia to describe his trip in terms of its potential to create American jobs by expanding exports.

To that end, he attended a signing ceremony at which representatives of Boeing and Lion Air, Indonesia’s largest private airline, signed a deal for Lion Air to buy 230 aircraft, an agreement worth $22 billion at current list prices.

Obama said the deal was “a remarkable example of the trade investment and commercial opportunities that exist in the Asia-Pacific region.”

Critical for the deal

Obama said his administration and the United States Export-Import Bank “were critical in facilitating this deal,” which he estimated would result in more than 100,000 American jobs over a period of years.

Domestic politics also had a bit role in Obama’s meetings with Asian leaders, including President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono of Indonesia. With Yudhoyono, Obama announced the transfer and upgrade of 24 excess F-16 fighters to the Indonesian Air Force, reflecting, he said, a commitment to the region’s security, and an expansion of Peace Corps volunteers and exchanges for education and environmental programs.

In remarks at his separate sessions with Prime Minister Manmohan Singh of India and the president of the Philippines, Benigno S Aquino III, Obama praised the contributions of Indian-Americans and Filipino-Americans to the United States.

After the meeting, Singh turned to Mr. Obama and called it “a privilege” to have the Obama administration so “deeply invested in ensuring that India makes a success of its historic journey” to establish a more open society.

He added that cooperation on civilian nuclear programs, disaster response and maritime security “unite us in our quest of a world free from the threat of war, want and exploitation.”

In Obama’s meeting with Aquino, he commended the Filipino president “for his leadership, for his reform efforts.” Aquino said, “We look forward, in these turbulent times of ours, to really further strengthen our relationship.”