AP News

Analysis: Can Obama fulfill wish on Asia outreach?


WASHINGTON (AP) — President Barack Obama wants Asia to be a growing focus of his second-term foreign policy, but whether that happens could depend on his ability to manage global hot spots and avert a fiscal crisis at home.

Within two weeks of his Nov. 6 re-election, Obama became the first U.S. president to visit Myanmar. The historic visit was a sign that he intended to sustain his administration's commitment to the region following the long wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

That's a reflection of Asia's growing economic and strategic importance. In the past three years, Washington has embroiled itself in diplomacy over the disputed South China Sea, sent more military assets to the Asia-Pacific and pushed forward a regional trade pact. The Obama administration also has put much effort into managing ties with emerging rival China.

Asia has welcomed those moves, but governments in the region question the U.S. ability to sustain its policy.

While Sen. John Kerry, the nominee to replace Hillary Rodham Clinton as secretary of state, is expected to continue the focus, the Middle East seems destined to demand the lion's share of his attention. There's no end in sight to the civil war in Syria and pressure could mount to take military action over Iran's nuclear program.

It also will be tough to enhance the U.S. profile in Asia in an age of austerity. In contrast to China, the U.S. can little afford more aid for its allies or to expand its military presence.

Perhaps most critical to U.S. stature in the region will be how it manages its deep political divisions at home.

Failure to resolve the standoff between Obama and Republicans over how to manage America's $16.4 trillion national debt weighs on global financial markets.

The Republican-controlled House is set to vote on a temporary measure this coming week that would permit the government to borrow more money to meet its debt obligations for about three more months. The proposal wouldn't tackle how to reduce the debt.

Without an extension in the debt ceiling, the world's largest economy could default as soon as mid-February. That probably would mean a downgrade in the U.S. credit rating, leading to higher borrowing costs in the U.S. and elsewhere. It would alarm creditor governments, such as China and Japan, which both hold more than $1 trillion in U.S. Treasury securities. It could undermine America's position as a safe haven for investors and trigger economic turmoil.

Australia's foreign minister, Bob Carr, warned after a last-gasp deal at the new year — staving off an immediate tax hike and budget cuts — that the massive U.S. debt has raised questions about the United States' ability to provide world leadership. But the trusted ally put a positive spin on things: "America is one budget deal away from resolving the issue of American decline," he said.

The top U.S. diplomat for East Asia agrees.

Kurt Campbell, who is expected to step down soon, said last week how the U.S. conducts itself domestically and handles its budget problems "will be at the heart of how Asia views our enduring role in the Asia-Pacific region."

For all the divisiveness in Washington, Asia policy remains an area of broad agreement.

Both parties have supported efforts to build stronger ties with Asia to position the U.S. to benefit from the region's rapid economic growth: cementing alliances in South Korea and Japan, building a strategic partnership with India and expanding ties in Southeast Asia.

Most notably, Republicans and Democrats have shown rare unity in backing the administration's ambitious outreach to former pariah state Myanmar.

But the Asia policy initiatives of Obama's first term could bring with them messy responsibilities in the second term.

The U.S. declaration in 2010 of its national interest in the peaceful resolution of maritime territorial disputes in the South China Sea has boosted Washington's standing among nations intimidated by China's assertive behavior in the resource-rich region.

But the Southeast Asian bloc that the U.S. wants to tackle the disputes appears ill-suited to cope. It is at risk of fracturing between those nations that want collective negotiations advocated by the U.S. and those opposing such diplomacy in deference to China.

Doubts remain over the commitment of Myanmar's military to democratic reform. Despite a shift away from authoritarian rule that has been rewarded by the relaxation of U.S. penalties, the military has waged an offensive against ethnic rebels in the country's north.

If confirmed as secretary of state, an immediate concern for Kerry will be the rising tension in Northeast Asia, where China, Japan and South Korea all are ushering in new leaders.

China's spat with Japan over contested islands threatens to embroil the U.S. if it escalates. While Washington will reaffirm its alliance with Japan, it also wants deeper ties with Beijing to dilute the risk of conflict breaking out. The U.S. will encourage Japan and South Korea, which both host American forces, to patch up relations strained over Tokyo's attitude toward its colonial past.

On North Korea, Kerry's arrival could herald a new approach.

As chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, he was critical of the Obama administration's reluctance to negotiate with North Korea on its nuclear program, and held informal talks last year with visiting North Korean officials in New York.

But he'll also be aware of the pitfalls of such engagement. Within a week of the meeting in New York, the North dashed hopes of rapprochement by announcing a long-range rocket launch.

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EDITOR'S NOTE — Matthew Pennington covers U.S.-Asian affairs for Associated Press in Washington.


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