Obama is saving the best for last

PUBLISHED : Monday, 16 November, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 05 December, 2016, 8:46am

US President Barack Obama will end his first trip to Asia since he entered the White House in January with a visit to Seoul. South Korea, where Obama's visit was originally scheduled as an afterthought, will prove to be the most rewarding stop.

On October 30, the Korean government announced a new commitment of 300 troops and 200 civilians to constitute a Provincial Reconstruction Team for an as-yet unnamed province in Afghanistan.

In return for its troubles, Seoul seeks White House support for the Korea-US Free Trade Agreement (Korus), which has been languishing in Congress for more than two years. Obama is unlikely to do more than commit to a further review of the pact, which he criticised as falling short in his presidential campaign.

Nonetheless, the background of this visit reveals a positive change in the management of the alliance, in contrast with the policy spats between Washington and Seoul towards North Korea under President Lee Myung-bak's two predecessors. Obama's team has re-established genuine consultation with America's Korean allies.

Even under Lee's predecessor, the late president Roh Moo-hyun, and despite noisy public disputes, substantial progress was achieved in modernising the alliance, as South Korea contributed to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, reached a free-trade agreement, and undertook long-delayed adjustments in the footprint of the US military presence. The White House staff naturally sought to limit Obama's travel time, but he wisely recognised that it would be an unpardonable snub not to stop in South Korea and show his commitment to the alliance. So he is due to fly in from China late on Wednesday evening, and leave after lunch the next day.

Nine days is a substantial commitment of White House time, and a wise gesture to reassure Asian nations that, while China is growing in power and influence, the US will not abandon them to face it alone. At the same time, Obama's trip signals that Washington seeks no confrontation with Beijing and in fact hopes to work with China on problems too great for any one power to manage.

Obama is also boosting the message that America is back after its long preoccupation with terrorism. Within that context, US relations with South Korea are their best in 12 years. But the US cannot take Seoul for granted, as political support for the high-visibility free-trade agreement is starting to wane in South Korea while the Obama administration sorts out its domestic priorities and examines flaws it sees.

Obama will also need to be careful not to let new and worthy, but less domestically sensitive, free-trade opportunities - such as the Trans-Pacific Partnership - jump the queue on Korus, which would only fire up Korean opponents of a deal that already favours US exporters overwhelmingly.

By paying respects in Seoul, and addressing the South Korean people's concerns with sincerity and action, Obama can depart from Asia on a high note, demonstrating American co-operation with a long-time ally in the region and underscoring the purpose of his trip.

Douglas H. Paal is vice-president for studies at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace