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With new term, Obama doubles down on Asia

Published on Nov 11, 2012 9:53 AM
 
After a convincing re-election victory, President Barack Obama looks set for another four years of reorienting the United States towards Asia at a time of uncertainty over a rising China. -- PHOTO: REUTERS

WASHINGTON (AFP) - After a convincing re-election victory, President Barack Obama looks set for another four years of reorienting the United States towards Asia at a time of uncertainty over a rising China.

In his first foreign trip since Tuesday's election, Mr Obama plans a historic visit to encourage reforms in Myanmar - seen as a key success during his first term - and will go to Thailand and Cambodia.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Defence Secretary Leon Panetta will also head to Asia this month. While the timing is coincidental - Mr Obama is attending the East Asia Summit in Cambodia - experts saw a powerful sign.

"Actions speak louder than words; the visit shouts Obama's intent for a purposeful focus on Asia in his second term," said Mr Ernie Bower of the Centre for Strategic and International Studies, pointing out that the trip is the first by a president solely to Southeast Asia since the Vietnam War.

Mr Obama spent part of his childhood in Indonesia and took office vowing to pay more attention to South-east Asia, charging that the dynamic and mostly US-friendly region had been neglected as Mr George W. Bush's administration was absorbed by wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

"Though issues like Syria are not going to go away, the fact that the US will not be at war by 2014 when it pulls combat troops out of Afghanistan should mean Asia can move up on the administration's second-term agenda," said Ms Nina Hachigian, a senior fellow at the left-leaning Centre for American Progress.

Mr Obama initially focused on cooperation with China but later hardened his line, boosting the US military role in the region as South-east Asian countries and US ally Japan accused Beijing of growing assertiveness in territorial disputes.

The US election came just before China launched a once-a-decade leadership change, with Mr Xi Jinping - whom the Obama administration has courted in a series of high-level meetings - set to succeed President Hu Jintao.

China had criticised Mr Obama's rival Mitt Romney, who accused the incumbent president of being too soft on issues including human rights and especially trade practices such as Beijing's allegedly undervalued currency.

After Mr Obama's victory, the state-run Xinhua news agency ran a commentary urging the US administration to "rethink its policy on China." It called for cooperation on "common challenges like terrorism, climate change (and) economic turbulence". But Mr Walter Lohman, director of the Asian studies centre at the conservative Heritage Foundation, said that the US election and China's leadership changes would not change the dynamics in ties between the world's top two economies.

The United States is still faced with a China that Mr Lohman said was marked by rising nationalism, a growing military and aggressive pursuit of border claims.

"It's not just campaign rhetoric," he said of US concerns on China.

"Just because we're through with the silly season doesn't mean we're going back to the good old days. I think we're in for a long-term rough patch with the Chinese."

One question mark is how Mr Obama's next team will impact Asia policy. Ms Clinton has made the continent a priority, but she plans to leave the administration along with her energetic top diplomat on East Asia, Mr Kurt Campbell.

Mr Obama's visit to Myanmar, where he will meet President Thein Sein and opposition icon Aung San Suu Kyi, would have been unthinkable when he entered the White House four years ago.

US officials point to Myanmar as a success in Mr Obama's policy declared in his inaugural address of extending a hand to US adversaries in return for progress. Republicans had sharply criticised Mr Obama's attempts at dialogue with Iran and Syria.

But Mr Aung Din, head of the US Campaign for Burma advocacy group, urged Mr Obama not to go to the country, saying that the military still remains in charge of parliament and would be strengthened by the presidential visit.

Mr Lohman praised Mr Obama's decision to visit Thailand, the oldest US ally in Asia. Mr Bush went twice to the kingdom, but one trip was for a regional summit and his 2008 visit focused on Myanmar and the Beijing Olympics. Mr Bill Clinton paid a state visit to Thailand in 1996.

"Had he gone to Cambodia, a place that the Thais have had some ups and downs with, and not gone to see the US allies in Thailand, it would have been a disaster," Mr Lohman said.