Barack Obama to visit China and Laos: A look back at his 10 previous trips to Asia as US president

US President Barack Obama will embark on what is likely to be his final trip to Asia next month before the end of his two- term presidency.
US President Barack Obama will embark on what is likely to be his final trip to Asia next month before the end of his two- term presidency. PHOTO: AFP

Next month, US President Barack Obama will embark on what is likely to be his final trip to Asia before the end of his two- term presidency.

According to a statement issued by the White House last Thursday (Aug 18), he will be heading to China and Laos from Sept 2 to 9.

In China, he will meet Chinese President Xi Jinping and also attend the G20 summit in Hangzhou.

In Laos, he will participate in the Association for South-east Asian Nations (Asean) and East Asian summits.

His visit to Laos will mark the first time a US president has ever visited the South-east Asian nation.

The visit to Asia will also be the 11th trip that the US President has made to the region since he first took office in January 2009.

The Obama administration's "pivot" or "rebalance" to Asia strategy announced in 2011 is one of the key policies of his presidential legacy.

Here is a look back at some highlights from the trips that Mr Obama has made to the region since he was elected president.

1. 2009: Japan, Singapore, China, South Korea


Obama (centre) posing for photos at Apec 2009 with Asian leaders (from left) Japanese Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama, Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong and China’s President Hu Jintao. PHOTO: ST FILE

The newly minted US President visited Japan, Singapore, China and South Korea in November 2009.

In Japan, the Hawaii-born Commander-in-Chief who spent some of his growing-up years in Indonesia, proclaimed himself America's "first Pacific president" and declared the US to be an "Asia-Pacific nation".

"As an Asia-Pacific nation, the US expects to be involved in the discussions that shape the future of this region," he said.

He also announced the US would engage in the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), a zero- tariff trade and investment liberalisation zone originally formed by Brunei, Chile, New Zealand and Singapore in 2005.

In Singapore, his next stop, he attended the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (Apec) summit and was the first US leader to meet all 10 members of  Asean for the first time in a landmark meeting.

It was also the first time since the 1960s that a US president had sat down at a meeting with a Myanmar leader, even though it was not a one-to-one meeting. Mr Obama urged release of democracy leader Aung Saan Suu Kyi who had by then spent 14 of the past 20 years in detention of one sort or another, mostly under house arrest.

Mr Obama's stop in China was the longest of his maiden trip to Asia. He and then China president Hu Jintao emphasised cooperation on a range of issues such as climate change but also differed on topics such as China's yuan, which Mr Obama said was set too low.

A joint "press conference" later turned out to be both leaders reading out carefully scripted statements, with no questions taken from reporters,. Mr Obama did use an American-style "town hall" meeting in Shanghai to speak out for Internet freedom and other rights. But China restricted that broadcast, meaning that few citizens outside Shanghai heard his words.

In South Korea, Mr Obama met and spoke with US troops at the Osan Air Base before concluding his nine-day Asia trip.

Sidelight


Barack Obama greets Emperor Akihito upon arriving at the Imperial Palace in Tokyo on Nov 14, 2009. PHOTO: REUTERS

The Japanese at first paid no particular attention when Mr Obama performed a deep bow before Japan's Emperor Akihito while simultaneously shaking the monarch's hand. But they were taken aback at the row it created in Washington with critics accusing Mr Obama of grovelling to a foreign leader. US State Department spokesman Ian Kelly came to Mr Obama's defence, telling reporters that the bow was a "sign of respect for the Emperor".

There was much happiness and relief when Mr Obama jetted into Singapore just in time for the Apec family photo shoot. Singapore designer Wykidd Song's Peranakan-inspired outfits were worn by the leaders for the shoot. Then Foreign Minister George Yeo, noting the import of this annual sartorial ritual, said: "It sends a message... that the most powerful leaders on earth (are) prepared to dress alike."

2. 2010: India, Indonesia, South Korea, Japan

In November 2010, Mr Obama embarked on a 10-day trip to Asia.

Mr Obama, who was accompanied by his wife Michelle, began his four-day stay in India at Mumbai's historic Taj Mahal hotel, parts of which were destroyed in the November 2008 terrorist attacks. In Delhi, he addressed the Indian parliament.

After two previously scheduled but postponed visits, his 24-hour stop in Jakarta marked the first time the US President returned to the Indonesian capital since his childhood. He had spent four years with his American mother and Indonesian stepfather in Jakarta in the late 1960s.


President Barack Obama (left) shaking hands with his South Korean counterpart Lee Myung Bak during the G-20 Opening Plenary Session held at COEX Seoul, Korea on Nov 12, 2010. PHOTO: LIANHE ZAOBAO

In Seoul, he attended the Group of 20 (G-20) summit. He attended the Apec summit in Yokohama, Japan.

An ST editorial said Mr Obama's swing through Asia proved one thing: The US, which for years has been accused of not paying much attention to Asia, is back with a vengeance.

Sidelight

Twenty-four hours was enough for Mr Obama to charm his way into the hearts of many Indonesians and seal his rock star-like reputation in the country where he spent a part of his childhood. "Bakso diplomacy" became a buzz word. Bakso is an Indonesian spicy meatball dish Mr Obama fondly remembers from his boyhood. At the state dinner, he was served this and nasi goreng (fried rice) - another childhood favourite. Former president Megawati Sukarnoputri, who had shunned all palace events since losing the presidential contest to Dr Yudhoyono in 2004, made an exception for the state dinner for Mr Obama. She was seated next to Mrs Obama.

During a 30-minute speech at the University of Indonesia's campus in Depok, Mr Obama told his audience, "Indonesia bagian dari diri saya". The sentence translates as "Indonesia is a part of me".

"It's wonderful to be here. Although I have to tell you that when you visit a place where you spent time as a child, as President, it's a little disorienting. The landscape has changed completely. When I first came here, it was 1967 and people were on becaks... and if they were not on becaks, they were on bemos.

"Now, as President, I can't even see any traffic because they blocked off all the streets," he said. Becak is a trishaw, and bemo is like a motorised three-wheeler

3. 2011: Australia, Indonesia

In 2011, Mr Obama returned to Indonesia for a second time as President to attend the third Asean-US summit that was held in Bali. He arrived from a two-day stop in Australia, where in a speech before the Australian Parliament on Nov 17, he laid out the case for America's "pivot" to the Asia-Pacific.

"Asia will largely define whether the century ahead will be marked by conflict or cooperation. I have, therefore, made a deliberate and strategic decision that, as a Pacific nation, the US will play a larger and long-term role in shaping this region and its future... in the Asia-Pacific in the 21st century, the US is all in."

In Bali, he was the first American president to attend the East Asia Summit. It was also in Bali that Mr Obama said he had a 20-minute telephone conversation with Myanmar opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, who had been released a year ago and received her support for US engagement.

He also announced that then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton would visit the cities of Naypyidaw and Yangon - the first visit by a US secretary state to Myanmar in 50 years.

Sidelight

At a state dinner to celebrate the 60th anniversary of the Australian-US alliance, Mr Obama joked that despite his long association with Australia, which he visited twice as a child, he was still struggling to master "strine" - Australia's accent.

4. 2012, March: South Korea

Towards the end of his first term as President, Mr Obama visited Seoul in March to participate in the 53-nation international Nuclear Security Summit.

During the three-day trip, he also made his first visit to the demilitarised zone between North and South Korea, where he met American troops stationed there.

Mr Obama held bilateral talks with then South Korean President Lee Myung Bak, then Chinese President Hu Jintao and then Pakistan Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani.

Sidelight

An off-record conversation with then Russian president Dmitry Medvedev on US plans for an anti-missile shield was caught on camera during the summit in Seoul and immediately circulated on social media.

Mr Obama: "On all these issues, but particularly missile defence, this can be solved, but it's important for him (Putin) to give me space."

Mr Medvedev: "Yeah, I understand your message about space. Space for you."

Mr Obama: "This is my last election. After my election I have more flexibility."

Mr Medvedev: "I understand. I will transmit this information to Vladimir."

While Mr Obama made it clear that his comments reflected a political reality that "everybody understands", Mr Medvedev was in the line of fire from Kremlin critics and Russian bloggers who ridiculed him for his apparent admission that all information needs to go through the all-powerful Russian No. 1 Mr Putin.

"Vladimiru", Russian for "to Vladimir" became a worldwide Twitter trend in a matter of hours as bloggers used it as a universal response to any sort of statement or demand.

5. 2012, November: Thailand, Myanmar, Cambodia

In late 2012, Mr Obama, fresh from his electoral triumph, embarked on a second trip to Asia.

His trip marked the first-ever visit by a US President to Myanmar and Cambodia.

He first stopped in Thailand, where he held bilateral meetings with then Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra and commemorated 180 years of official relations between the two countries.

During his landmark six-hour visit to Myanmar, Mr Obama met then President Thein Sein in Yangon. He also met Aung San Suu Kyi at the lakeside house, where she had been confined to since 2003 until her release in 2010.

While critics then called the Myanmar trip premature, Mr Obama said it was to acknowledge the country's "articulated commitment to further political reform".

Compared to the rock-star-style welcome in Myanmar, Mr Obama's arrival in Cambodia was muted. He found banners outside the venue of the Asean and East Asia Summit welcoming China's Premier Wen Jiaobao and extolling the friendship between China and Cambodia, but there were no similar signs heralding Mr Obama's arrival.

He attended the East Asian Summit in Phnom Penh. At the summit, territorial disputes over the South China Sea and the Senkaku Islands dominated the discussion.

6. 2014, April: Japan, South Korea, Malaysia, Philippines

In April 2014, President Obama made a week-long tour of Asia to advance talks on the TPP among other things.

 

His declaration that the Diaoyu/Senkaku islands - claimed by both China and Japan - are covered by Article Five of the US-Japan Treaty of Mutual Co-operation and Security and his signing of a defence pact with the Philippines were obvious proof that Washington views Beijing as an opponent, The China Daily said then.

 

The trip to Manila came a month after Manila filed a case with an international arbitration court contesting China's claims over the South China Sea.

The Philippines and the US signed a 10-year defence pact in one of the clearest signs of renewed American engagement in the region.

Reaffirming Washington's commitment to defend its South-east Asian ally, Mr Obama said it stems from a "mutual defence treaty" the Philippines and the US signed over 60 years ago.

The trip was also significant, as the trip to Malaysia marked the first visit by a US President in nearly 50 years.

Sidelight

Mr Obama joined a long list of celebrities who dined at the three-Michelin starred Sukiyabashi Jiro, a sushi restaurant in Ginza, Chuo, Tokyo.

As Mr Obama and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe went straight into "business-like talks", focusing on trade, sushi maestro Jiro Ono kept serving his own selection of 20 pieces as he does to everyone else, his son said.

"He (Obama) seemed to like chu-toro (medium fatty tuna) very much because he winked when he ate it," said the younger Ono, also saying that: "The President ate them all," apparently in reference to reports Mr Obama had stopped halfway through the meal, praising the way he skilfully tackled the delicacies.

"He said three times, 'This is the best sushi I've ever had in my life'," he added.

7. 2014, November: China, Myanmar, Australia


(From left) Russia's Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, US President Barack Obama, Philippine President Benigno Aquino and Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong at the East Asia Summit, held in Nay Pyi Taw, Myanmar, on Nov 13, 2014. PHOTO: LIANHE ZAOBAO

Mr Obama made his first stop in Beijing, where he attended the Apec Leaders Meeting followed by a two-day state visit to China.

President Xi Jinping called for an "Asia-Pacific Dream" and held bilateral meetings with Mr Obama and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.

Couched in the vision of a region enjoying stability and prosperity, the Asia-Pacific Dream is seen as an extension of Mr Xi's pet political slogan, the China Dream, which envisages a stronger and more confident China both domestically and abroad, ST's China Bureau Chief Kor Kian Beng wrote.

The underlying tenet of the Asia-Pacific Dream is that China will be the dominant economic power in the region and that countries are better off tying their future more closely to the world's No. 2 economy, especially as its economic heft increases further.

Mr Obama and Mr Xi made a landmark climate deal, with China agreeing to cap its emissions around 2030.

He then made his way to Nay Pyi Taw, Myanmar, where he took part in a US-Asean session and attended the East Asia Summit.

He also participated in a town hall meeting initiated by the Young South-east Asian Leaders Initiative.

In Australia, for the G-20 summit, he said in an address at the University of Queensland in Brisbane that Asia's security order must not be based on intimidation of small nations by big ones, as he reaffirmed his "pivot" to the Asia-Pacific. that "the United States is and always will be a Pacific power".

 
 

Sidelight

A much anticipated handshake between Mr Jinping and Japan's Prime Minister Abe was the most awkward moment of all during the Apec summit in Beijing. "Mr Xi looked like a man meeting his ex-wife's new boyfriend," was how Professor John Delury of South Korea's Yonsei University described it to the Wall Street Journal.

Both men looked grim as they walked towards each other, hands outstretched. Their handshake was awkward, and neither man offered a smile when they posed for the obligatory photo.

Their body language reflected that both sides might not have been too happy with the compromises they had to make for the meeting - one that Mr Abe had been pushing for - to take place, said analysts.

Mr Abe wanted a formal meeting with Mr Xi to show that he is able to improve ties with Japan's largest neighbour.

8. 2015: India


President Obama and India's PM Modi talk as they have coffee and tea together in the gardens at Hyderabad House in New Delhi on Jan 25, 2015. PHOTO: REUTERS 

Mr Obama's visit to India in January 2015 was his first to the South Asian nation since Prime Minister Narendra Modi was sworn into office in May 2014.

He also became the first American leader to have visited India twice, and the first US President to attend India's Republic Day parade as the chief guest - one of the biggest honours that India can bestow on a foreign leader.

The two sides advanced long-stalled discussions on civil nuclear cooperation and also signed a series of agreements, including the renewal of a 10-year-old defence strategic framework.

Beyond the handful of agreements reached, analysts said the personal touches between Mr Obama and Mr Modi have been particularly eye-catching - given that Mr Modi was, until a year ago, on a US visa blacklist for his controversial handling of deadly Muslim-Hindu riots in 2002 in Gujarat, when he was the state's chief minister.

 

The visit also signified improved relations in US-India ties that had spiralled downward in 2013 following the arrest and strip search of an Indian diplomat over allegations that she mistreated her maid.

Sidelight

Mr Modi broke with protocol and greeted Mr Obama at the airport with a big hug. Then he poured tea in the gardens of Hyderabad House, a former palace, wearing a suit with his own name printed all over it, and addressed the US President by his first name on multiple occasions.

In turn, Mr Obama called Mr Modi a friend, noting personal details such as how his host gets by with less sleep than he does - three hours compared to his five.

9. 2015: Malaysia and Philippines


Barack Obama speaking during the Apec summit in Manila, Philippines on Nov 18, 2015. PHOTO: ST FILE

Mr Obama travelled to Malaysia and the Philippines to meet with world leaders and attend key international conferences in November 2015.

 

In the Philippines, he attended the Apec Summit.

 

Speaking on board the Philippine Navy flagship Gregorio del Pilar, a former US Coast Guard cutter, Mr Obama also announced US$259 million in maritime security assistance to US allies in the region.

"More capable navies and partnership with the United States are critical for the security of this region," he said.

The choice of the Gregorio del Pilar was highly symbolic as it operates around the Spratly Islands in the South China Sea that are claimed by both Manila and Beijing.

He stopped in Malaysia for the US-Asean and East Asia summits.

The 10th East Asia Summit focused on the territorial disputes in the South China Sea as well as the global fight against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.

10. 2016, May: Vietnam and Vietnam

Early in May this year, President Obama made a historic visit to two former wartime foes of the US: Vietnam and Japan.

He was the third US President to visit Vietnam since the end of the decade-long Vietnam War in 1975. In Hanoi, the President announced the historic decision to lift the four-decade long arms embargo on Vietnam.

 

In Japan, he made the significant gesture of being the first sitting president of the US to visit the Peace Memorial in Hiroshima and pay tribute to victims of the world's first nuclear attack on Aug 6, 1945.

 

Mr Obama also attended the Group of Seven (G7) Summit.

 
 

A Straits Times' editorial said both stops were important to expunge memories of old enmities, even as America seeks to cement new friendships to tackle emerging challenges to both regional security and the world order.

"Alongside, he also worked on building the non-military part of the pivot, notably the Trans Pacific Partnership Agreement that ropes in Japan, Vietnam, Malaysia and Singapore alongside eight other nations and the US.

"In actively promoting the TPP, the Obama administration braved vast domestic opposition from quarters that consider the trade deal's advantages too tilted to nations exporting to the US," it added.

Sidelight

The US President slipped away from his hectic Vietnam visit to sample bun cha with Anthony Bourdain, a chef and food critic who fronts a travel show about hidden culinary gems around the world.

"Total cost of bun cha dinner with the President: $6. I picked up the check," Bourdain, who is renowned for his love of cheap streetside food, later tweeted.

Mr Obama also fielded questions on everything from rap and weed-smoking to his good looks at a lively meeting with young Vietnamese, who see the US leader as a far cry from their staid communist rulers.

The town hall gathering with hundreds of youngsters was held in the country's buzzing commercial and creative capital, Ho Chi Minh City.

Sources: The Straits Times Archives, Reuters, AFP, CCTV, Foreign Policy, The Washington Post, The White House, CNN, The New York Times, The Guardian