Early in his presidency, Barack Obama declared the United States a Pacific power with his much touted “pivot” to Asia and he wants to consolidate it.
As he prepares to leave office in January, the White House is trying to show that Washington “can be counted on,” despite the policy differences of his likely successors.
“The United States is a Pacific power, and we are here to stay,” US President Barack Obama told the Australian Parliament in 2011.
But as he prepares to leave office nearly five years later, much work remains in the region.
In what is expected to be his final journey to Asia before his term ends in January, Obama arrives Saturday in China for the Group of 20 (G20) summit.
He is to continue on to attend a US-ASEAN summit and the East Asia Summit in Laos, where he will become the first US president to visit the Southeast Asian nation.
The summit of the Group of 20 leading economies in Hangzhou provides Obama with a chance to tout economic progress since the 2008 global crisis and push for an international, rules-based trade order as the US seeks to balance relations with a top trading partner with whom it has often clashed.
“The president’s final summit will provide an opportunity for leaders to continue addressing how to boost global growth, while we also ensure that the benefits of globalization, digitization, integration are shared more broadly,” said Wally Adeyemo, who serves as Obama’s representative on economic issues at the G20.
Attention will focus on Obama’s meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping amid ongoing tensions in the South China Sea, an increasingly belligerent North Korea and concerns about cybersecurity and trade.
In March, the US was able to convince China, North Korea’s main ally, to impose the toughest UN Security Council sanctions yet on Pyongyang in response to a series of ballistic missile tests and a reportedly successful hydrogen bomb test early this year.
The leaders will push for an entering into force of the Paris climate agreement amid ongoing cooperation between the two large powers to fight climate change, White House climate advisor Brian Deese said.
On trade, the Obama administration has frequently pointed out its efforts to combat unfair practices by China at the World Trade Organization and says its Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP), a 12-country trade deal, will allow the US – not China – to write the rules of trade in the region.
But the TPP’s fate hangs in the balance amid rising anti-trade sentiment in the United States that has led Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton, once a vocal proponent of the deal, to turn against it.
Republican Donald Trump strongly opposes the agreement and most other trade deals, while congressional leaders have signalled they are unlikely to push for a vote on the agreement before Obama leaves office.
“There are many elements to our Asia-Pacific strategy, but TPP is in many ways seen as a litmus test for whether or not the US has staying power in this region.
“What the countries of the Asia Pacific region want to know, particularly the Asian countries, is whether or not we can be counted on,” Deputy National Security Advisor Ben Rhodes said.
Defence Secretary, Ashton Carter, has said that the trade deal is “as strategically important to the rebalance as an aircraft carrier.”
The trade agreement is not the only issue that hangs in the balance as American voters head to the polls in November to chose between Clinton, who was instrumental in Obama’s foreign policy as secretary of state from 2009-13, and Trump, who has called for a re-evaluation of the US’ role in the world, including key military alliances with Japan and South Korea.
US Vice President Joe Biden called on the next president to recommit to stabilizing alliances in Asia despite the costs.
“We should never underestimate the extraordinary economic costs to the American people if Asia devolved into conflict,” he told Foreign Affairs magazine this month.
However, Obama’s Asia policy, designed largely to maintain US influence in the face of a rising China, was frequently obscured by other world events, including the conflict in Syria, the rise of Islamic State and Russia’s involvement in Ukraine.
Those issues will continue to dominate at the G20, including during a bilateral meeting between Obama and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and likely talks with Russian President Vladimir Putin. (Dpa/NAN)