WASHINGTON (Reuters) - President Barack Obama’s first trip abroad since winning a second term was to be a chance to bask in the glow of his election triumph and promote what aides have touted as a legacy-making U.S. strategic shift toward Asia.
It is, though, shaping up as something less than a victory lap.
Obama’s efforts to persuade Asian partners of his commitment to the region could be undercut by deepening instability in the Middle East, lingering tensions with China at a time when a new leadership is taking over in Beijing and big distractions at home, including a looming fiscal crisis and a national security scandal.
Obama embarks on Saturday on a whirlwind Southeast Asia tour highlighted by a landmark visit to Myanmar, a former pariah state. His main challenge there will be to lend encouragement to a fragile democratic transition while prodding the quasi-civilian government to do more to improve human rights and curb sectarian bloodshed.
The trip, Obama’s first overseas since his November 6 re-election, grows out of an initiative he announced last year to reorient America’s foreign, economic and security policy as it disentangles itself from wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. It is widely seen as an attempt to counter China’s regional clout.
However, even before Obama departs aboard Air Force One, the Asia “pivot” - as the White House has dubbed it - is bumping up against geopolitical and budgetary realities that will compete for his attention during his three-days in the region. The trip will also take him to Thailand and Cambodia.
Topping Obama’s list of immediate concerns is a military showdown between Israel and Hamas militants who control the Gaza Strip. He has pressed for efforts to de-escalate the fighting before it spins out of control and is expected to keep close tabs on the situation as he travels.
The latest Israeli-Palestinian violence not only raises the spectre of all-out war but underscores the likelihood that Obama’s global agenda in his second term will continue to be usurped by one crisis after another in the volatile Middle East.
”It’s obvious that you really can’t ‘pivot’ to Asia. All you can do is ‘pirouette’,“ said David Steinberg, a former State Department and USAID official and now an Asia expert at Georgetown University. ”You always have to come back to focus on crisis in the Middle East.
Another complication for Obama is China’s once-in-a-generation changing of the guard. He goes to the region just after China’s president-in-waiting, Xi Jinping, was appointed head of the ruling Communist Party on Thursday.
Washington is watching warily for signs of how Xi and his revamped leadership team will guide the world’s second largest economy and especially whether there will be any change in Beijing’s handling of trade and currency practices that have drawn heavy U.S. criticism.
On top of that, there are concerns over rising Chinese nationalism, troubles in the South China Sea with U.S. allies like the Philippines and a simmering territorial dispute involving tiny islands claimed by Beijing and Tokyo.
No doubt, Obama travels to Asia with his hand strengthened by the realization that he will govern for the next four years.
At the same time, U.S. officials are mindful that Asian leaders may be hesitant to fully embrace Washington’s efforts to consolidate ties and reinforce its influence until questions about a powerful and increasingly assertive China are cleared up.
Also dogging Obama’s travels will be uncertainty about whether he can avert the so-called “fiscal cliff” of tax increases and steep spending cuts set to kick in at year-end unless he can reach a deal with Congress.
He has faced Republican criticism for going overseas at such a critical time. But White House spokesman Jay Carney insists that Obama will remain engaged while travelling and stressed the dividends of the trip in terms of markets for U.S. goods.
Despite that, failure to overcome partisan gridlock could strangle the weak U.S. recovery - threatening to tip it back into recession - and send shock waves worldwide, including through Asia’s dynamic economies.
Growing budget austerity pressure in Washington also raises questions over whether the Obama administration will be able to devote sufficient resources to boost its security ties in the region and aid development in poorer parts of Asia.
“There will be, I suspect, some quiet, nervous talk in the hallways,” said Michael Green, a former White House adviser to Republican President George W. Bush, referring to an East Asia summit that Obama will attend in Phnom Penh early next week.
“Particularly, allies will worry about the impact on defence spending at a time when Chinese power is rising,” said Green, now at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies.
But Tom Donilon, Obama’s national security adviser, insisted Washington would be undeterred from pursuing its plans to enhance its ability to project U.S. military power in the region. In a preview of the trip, he said Obama was determined to keep his pledge that “reductions in U.S. defence spending will not come at the expense of the Asia-Pacific.”
Indeed, China will be the critical subtext to just about everything on Obama’s Southeast Asia trip.
Though administration officials insist their Asia policy is not about containing China, the U.S. effort to reinforce its influence has roused Beijing’s fear of being encircled.
Donilon insisted, however, the two powers could both compete and cooperate and Washington would work to “get the U.S.-China relationship right” as a new Chinese leadership takes the reins.
Obama’s presence in Myanmar, where China acted as the main patron of the former junta, will highlight what the White House sees as a foreign policy achievement - the success in pushing the country’s long-ruling generals onto the path of democratic reform.
But human rights groups opposed Obama’s Myanmar visit, the first by a U.S. president, calling it premature because reforms have yet to be consolidated after decades of military rule. A group of activists met White House officials on Wednesday to urge Obama to take a tough line with the governments in Myanmar and Cambodia.
Donilon made clear Obama would press Myanmar’s reformist President Thein Sein, both in public and in private, to do more about the continuing ethnic violence and human rights abuses. He will also meet opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi and will try to “lock in” recent reforms.
“We absolutely are aware of the dangers of backsliding, and if that takes place we’ll respond accordingly,” he said.
A Reuters investigation into a wave of sectarian assaults on minority Muslims in western Myanmar painted a troubling picture of organized attacks with links in some cases to local security forces.
And human rights advocates worry that Obama’s Asia policy puts economic interests far ahead of humanitarian concerns. “As it now stands, the Asia realignment lacks moral substance,” said John Sifton, Asia director for Human Rights Watch.
On top of other pressing challenges that will trail Obama overseas will be a still-evolving scandal that has rocked his national security team just days after his re-election.
The FBI is probing an extramarital affair that forced CIA director David Petraeus to resign and has ensnared the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, Marine General John Allen, who is being investigated for potentially inappropriate communications with a second woman at the Centre of the Petraeus case.
Writing by Matt Spetalnick; Editing by Martin Howell and Jackie Frank