President Obama’s Trip to Asia
November 3, 2009
President Obama makes his first trip to Asia to attend the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) meetings in Singapore this month. The president will begin his trip in Tokyo on November 12 and 13 and then travel to Singapore for the APEC meeting that runs from the 13th to 15th. From Singapore he will travel to China from the 15th to the 18th and finally visit Seoul on the 18th and 19th.
Q1: What is the significance and expectations associated with this visit?
A1: Overall views of the United States saw an uptick in almost every country in Asia (including “tough ones” like Malaysia and Indonesia) after Obama’s election. These positive views remains quite strong even 10 months into his term. Obama comes to Asia arguably as the first U.S. president who can claim Asian heritage. The expectations of him are probably higher than they have been for any recent president.
Q2: What are the overall issues associated with the APEC meetings?
A2: The meetings will focus on the organization’s core mission, which is to promote trade and market opening in fulfillment of a longer-term vision to create a free trade area of the Asia-Pacific. The Bogor Declaration of 1994 sought to create free trade by 2010 among the developed APEC countries and by 2012 for its developing economies.
Q3: How big is APEC?
A3: Founded in 1989, the 21-member APEC countries account for more than half of global domestic product and 44 percent of world trade.
Q4: What will APEC countries be looking for from the United States?
A4: One likely theme at the meetings will be the need to maintain an open economic order and to resist protectionist sentiments as economies slowly recover from the global economic crisis. Countries will likely be briefed on the stimulus measures, and efforts will be made to coordinate policies on not retracting stimulus packages too early before recovery has taken traction. Many will be focused on what President Obama says about trade policy given Asian concerns about rising protectionist sentiment in the United States, particularly in the aftermath of the U.S. decision to slap punitive tariffs on Chinese-made tires in September. A bellwether of the administration’s overall trade policy for APEC countries will be the administration’s stated views on how and at what speed to proceed with the U.S.-Korea free trade agreement.
Q5: What other issues are on the agenda?
A5: APEC leaders will discuss climate change and improving energy efficiency and clean development in advance of the Copenhagen summit to be attended by some APEC members. Regulatory reforms to improve international business will also be on the agenda. On the security side, APEC members will want to hear Obama’s plans for Afghanistan and Iraq, particularly as Tokyo and Seoul have made new commitments to Afghanistan in advance of the summit. The South Koreans just announced that they will send a provincial reconstruction team to join their medical team that is already on the ground. The Japanese government is still reviewing its policy options but is expected to unveil an extensive aid package soon. There are also likely to be discussions on antipiracy operations.
Q6: Anything particular to watch for?
A6: The atmospherics between Obama and newly elected Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama of Japan will be carefully watched by all. President Obama arrives at a time of the most fundamental political change in Japanese domestic politics since Taisho democracy (prewar Japan). While the new government still views the alliance with the United States as critical to Japan’s national interests, there are clear signs that there will not be 100 percent continuity with the past half-century of Liberal Democratic Party rule. The most proximate issue is whether Japan will reaffirm the 2006 base realignment agreement with the United States—which amounts to the most significant restructuring of U.S. forces in Japan in over three decades—or whether it will seek to reopen the agreement for negotiation. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates expressed his strong opposition during his October trip to Tokyo to any renegotiation, particularly with regard to the relocation of the Futenma facility to an offshore site, which was one of the most difficult issues in the 2006 agreement. The Japanese foreign minister comes to the United States this week to make progress on the issue prior to Obama’s trip. The two leaders will surely make the right soundings about the strength of the alliance and will seek to coordinate policies on North Korea, but disagreements over core bilateral defense issues could offer potential dissonance. Obama goes to Japan on November 12.
APEC leaders will discuss North Korea and the state of Six-Party Talks, which have lately shown small signs of progress and greater Pyongyang interest in returning to some form of negotiation.
APEC leaders are also likely to want to hear U.S. thinking on Burma, as the Obama administration has relaxed restrictions on contact with the military regime, evidenced by Assistant Secretary of State Kurt Campbell’s trip on November 3.
Victor D. Cha holds the Korea Chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.
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