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Obama seeks to reassure Asia allies

By Kim Ghattas
BBC News, Washington

Leaders gathering ahead of the meeting in Singapore
President Obama will join leaders at the Asean meeting

There seems to be a "first" to everything that President Barack Obama is, or does.

The first black leader of the US is also the first American president who has lived in Asia as a child - the first president with an "Asia-Pacific orientation", as US officials put it.

President Obama will try to capitalise on this during his week-long trip to the region.

He wants to build on and improve crucial relationships with allies and rivals across the Pacific.

He will be tackling a broad range of issues - some of them thorny, like global trade, China's currency and US debt, and how to deal with countries like North Korea and Burma, not to mention climate change.

He will also be the first US president to attend a summit of the Association of South East Asian Nations (Asean) in Singapore.

Mutual ties

Rubber masks of President Obama and Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama
Toymakers in Japan have gone into overdrive ahead of the visit

This is, according to Ben Rhodes, a senior official at the National Security Council, a clear signal of the "president's strong commitment to work in a comprehensive way with our Asian partners".

"He understands that the future of our prosperity and our security is very much tied to this part of the world," Mr Rhodes told reporters in a briefing.

While the future of the US may be tied to Asia, it is also in many ways dependent on it - particularly when it comes to trade or key foreign policy goals. That is why a lot is riding on this trip.

The region buys around 25% of American exports - 1.6 million jobs in the US are linked to those exports.

At a time of economic crisis, this is particularly critical.

map showing Obama tour locations

The deputy national security adviser for international economic affairs, Michael Froman, said the US wanted to make sure countries in Asia were "pursuing balanced growth going forward, opening their economies, allowing us to expand our exports to the region and create more export-related jobs here at home". The region is expected to grow by 7% next year.

The trip, which also includes stops in Japan, South Korea and China, aims to send a clear message that Washington remains a powerful player in the region. It is also meant to reassure US allies who fear Chinese hegemonic power.

Power games

A senior US official said recently that "the Chinese are everywhere, their workers are everywhere, from India to Burma to Iran". He added that the US was watching China take over economically in some parts of the world.

"I think it's a common perception in the region that US influence has been on the decline while Chinese influence has been increasing," said Jeffrey Bader, who is in charge of Asian policy at the National Security Council.

China must reassure the rest of the world that its development and growing global role will not come at the expense of security and well-being of others
Jim Steinberg, Deputy Secretary of State

"One of the messages that the president will be sending on this visit is that we are an Asia-Pacific nation and we are there for the long haul."

Mr Bader was surprisingly candid when discussing the importance of the relationship with Beijing. After listing the issues that would be on the agenda, he admitted that on none of them could the US "succeed without China's cooperation".

Chinese leaders are likely to relish such a statement and the power it seems to give them.

Mr Bader added that the administration did not see the relationship as "a zero-sum one, but one where we're obviously going to have differences, where we're going to be competitors in certain aspects. But we want to maximise areas where we can work together because the global challenges will simply not be met if we don't."

'Strategic reassurance'

It is a pragmatic approach to diplomacy, which the Obama administration has adopted with many of its foes and rivals - but it still needs to deliver results. Critics of the administration say the president is being too accommodating, whether with China or Russia.

"Dubbed 'strategic reassurance', the policy aims to convince the Chinese that the United States has no intention of containing their rising power. Details remain to be seen, but as with the Russia 'reset', it is bound to make America's allies nervous," writes Robert Kagan from the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in the Washington Post.

Contrary to how the administration views the relationship, Mr Kagan argues that "for the Chinese - true realists - the competition with the United States in East Asia is very much a zero-sum game".

Academics have been debating the meaning of "strategic reassurance". Critics say it sounds too much like appeasement, while supporters argue it requires Beijing to do some of the reassuring.

At least that is what Deputy Secretary of State Jim Steinberg argued when he coined the catchphrase:

"China must reassure the rest of the world that its development and growing global role will not come at the expense of security and well-being of others."

Asia experts will be watching whether the administration fleshes out its policy on China some more during this trip.

Some of that may come in Tokyo. There, the president will deliver a key speech during which he is expected to reaffirm the strength of Washington's alliance with Japan.

But beyond the official meetings, there will be some people-to-people diplomacy with a "town hall"-style meeting in Shanghai and sightseeing in Beijing.

In Japan, the president will meet Emperor Akihito and Empress Michiko.

And Mr Obama's personal background will also play a role - in Singapore he will hold a bilateral meeting with the Indonesian president. Indonesia is the country where he spent four years of his childhood.



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