Obama heads to Asia fresh from poll drubbing

US President Barack Obama (right) speaks with Secretary of Health and Human Services Sylvia Burwell before the start of a Cabinet meeting at the White House in Washington on Nov 7, 2014. -- PHOTO: REUTERS
US President Barack Obama (right) speaks with Secretary of Health and Human Services Sylvia Burwell before the start of a Cabinet meeting at the White House in Washington on Nov 7, 2014. -- PHOTO: REUTERS

WASHINGTON (AFP) - Still smarting from his election night mauling, President Barack Obama heads this weekend to China seeking to reassure Asian nations of America's commitment to its much-vaunted pivot to the region.

Assailed on all sides by global crises, from Islamic militants in Iraq and Syria to the conflict in Ukraine and the spread of Ebola, Obama will aim to dispel fears that Washington's attention is increasingly diverted away from Asian issues.

Besides attending a two-day summit of Asian and Pacific leaders which opens on Monday in Beijing, Obama will also hold separate talks with Chinese President Xi Jinping on Tuesday and Wednesday.

He will then travel to Myanmar to attend the East Asia Summit on the sidelines of a meeting of Association of South-east Asian Nations (Asean) in the capital Naypyidaw, before heading for G20 talks in Brisbane, Australia.

"This is going to be a tough trip for the president," predicted Ernest Bower, a senior Asia advisor with the Centre for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS). "I think when South-east Asia looks at this trip and him coming, they're wondering, you know, who is Barack Obama now after the midterm elections?" Bower said.

"They'll be trying to discern whether he has the commitment and political capability, political capital to follow through on earlier commitments."

- 'Tired of his banality' -

Obama's Democrats lost heavily to Republicans in Tuesday's mid-term elections, as his political rivals took the driver's seat in Congress, wresting back control of the Senate and holding onto the House of Representatives. Global allies are now anxiously watching to see if Obama will be able to carry out any of his foreign agenda, or whether he will be hamstrung by a combative Congress with very different ideas on America's future direction.

Just days before his arrival, China's state-run media decried Obama's leadership. "Obama always utters, 'Yes, we can,' which led to the high expectations people had for him," wrote the Global Times, which has close ties to China's ruling Communist Party.

"But he has done an insipid job, offering nearly nothing to his supporters... US society has grown tired of his banality."

But this trip will be a chance for Obama to re-engage with Asia after he was forced to skip the 2013 talks, held in Bali, due to a looming budget crisis. While Asian nations politely said they understood Obama's reason for not showing up, behind the scenes there was some grumbling.

"The president remains deeply committed to his Asia rebalancing strategy and its implementation will remain a top priority throughout the second term," National Security Advisor Susan Rice insisted Friday.

"America's security and our prosperity are increasingly and inextricably linked to the

Asia-Pacific. The United States is and will remain an Asian-Pacific power."

- Tensions 'the new normal' -

Top of Obama's concerns in his talks with Chinese leaders will be cybertheft, as well as territorial tensions triggered by Beijing's claims to much of the East China and South China Seas.

"I would characterise the US-China relationship as one that is not in a downward spiral, but one where a heightened level of tension is the new normal," said Michael Green, senior vice president for Asia at the CSIS.

There are some hopes for constructive talks on climate change in Beijing as two of the biggest emitters of greenhouse gases and the two greediest energy consumers eye key UN talks on global warming in Paris next year.

Obama will also meet regional allies including Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott and Japanese premier Shinzo Abe, and hold his first talks with the new Indonesian President Joko Widodo.

In Myanmar - his second visit to the country which is emerging from a half century of military rule - Obama will meet President Thein Sein and opposition icon Aung San Suu Kyi.

Washington has raced to normalise ties with the new Myanmar, removing most US sanctions imposed on the military junta. But Suu Kyi warned this week the pace of change was slowing, adding that at times the US had been "over-optimistic about the reform process."

In one area, though, the Republican hold on Congress could be good news for the Obama administration as it seeks to seal an ambitious free trade accord, the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), encompassing some 12 nations.

China is excluded from the talks at the moment, but the United States and Japan are keen to see a treaty as soon as possible. An announcement at the Apec talks is unlikely though, White House officials have warned.

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