Obama seeks to renew Asia role with rescheduled trip

US president to travel to Asia in April seeking to reinforce Washington's 'pivot' to the region

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 21 November, 2013, 9:48am
UPDATED : Thursday, 21 November, 2013, 9:48am

President Barack Obama will visit Asia in April to push closer ties, an aide said on Wednesday, after his earlier cancellation of a trip raised questions about US commitment to the region.

Susan Rice, Obama’s national security adviser, acknowledged disappointment after the president called off a trip in October to negotiate with Republican lawmakers who shut down the US government to stop his health care reforms.

Rice said Obama would make up with his trip next year, saying: “Our friends in Asia deserve and will continue to get our highest-level attention.”

“No matter how many hotspots emerge elsewhere, we will continue to deepen our enduring commitment to this critical region,” Rice said in an address at Georgetown University.

Rice said US assistance to the typhoon-hit Philippines, which includes the deployment of more than 1,000 Marines, represented a “broader pledge” to all of Asia.

“America’s commitment won’t expire a few months or a few years from now. The United States of America will be there – reliable, constant, strong and steady – for the long haul,” she said.

Rice did not specify Obama’s itinerary.

He had planned stops last month in the Philippines, Malaysia and, for international summits, Indonesia and Brunei.

Even US allies quietly voiced concern over Obama’s no-show, which offered an outsized role to China’s President Xi Jinping at the meetings.

Obama, who spent part of his childhood in Indonesia, pledged in his first term to “pivot” US foreign policy toward Asia, where the regional order is being transformed by the rapid growth of China’s economy and military.

“The United States of America will be there – reliable, constant, strong and steady – for the long haul.”
US National Security Adviser Susan Rice

But in his second term, Obama has focused on Syria’s civil war and easing hostility with Iran. The United States has also put a priority on taming its debt after two wars and a recession.

In the renewed regional push, Vice-President Joe Biden will tour China, Japan and South Korea next month.

Biden met on Wednesday with China’s Vice-Premier Liu Yandong and discussed Beijing’s latest reforms, the White House said.

Rice said that Secretary of State John Kerry, who has invested most of his time in the Middle East since taking office, would return to Asia in December as well.

Rice said that the United States would stay true to its pledge to shift most of its navy toward Asia by 2020 and would pursue the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), a trade pact Obama hopes will shape the coming order in Asia.

The national security adviser reached out to China, which in the past has called the trade pact – also unpopular with much of Obama’s labour base at home – an effort to encircle it.

“We welcome any nation that is willing to live up to the high standards of this agreement to join and share the benefits of TPP – and that includes China,” Rice said.

But Rice also urged China to take action on US concerns, including cyber-espionage.

The US-China Economic and Security Review Commission, a government advisory panel, earlier urged the United States to consider tougher actions, such as possible sanctions to stop spying.

Rice also voiced alarm over China’s disputes with its neighbours, including US allies Japan and the Philippines, calling the tensions a “growing threat to regional peace and security and to US interests”.

She urged all sides to “reject coercion and aggression,” and renewed the US call for a code of conduct to govern disputes in the South China Sea.

In a potential indication that White House is thinking of its legacy, Rice hailed democratic reforms in Myanmar and tied them to Obama’s outreach to the long-time pariah state since the start of his presidency.

“If progress continues, by the end of President Obama’s second term we hope to have helped Burma re-establish itself as a regional leader and as a thriving, if nascent, prosperous democracy,” Rice said, using Myanmar’s alternative name.

But Rice said that Myanmar needed to do more to protect minorities including the mostly Muslim Rohingya and to ensure free elections in 2015.