President Obama Tours Asia

EDITOR'S NOTE: Council on Foreign Relations experts discuss what issues U.S. President Barack Obama should focus on in his upcoming trip to Asia. For the full article, please visit the council's Web site. A few excerpts:

President Barack Obama will travel to Asia from November 12-19 to strengthen U.S. cooperation with this growing center of global power. A long list of issues crowds the U.S. policy agenda in the region: security, economic, environment, and energy among others. Denuclearization of North Korea, China's holding of U.S. debt, the realignment of U.S. security forces in Japan, and international agreements on trade and climate change may pose challenges to the president as he tours the region.

For the president's first stop, in Tokyo, CFR's Senior Fellow for Japan Studies Sheila Smith lays out an agenda for revitalizing the U.S. relationship with a new Japanese government. Southeast Asia Fellow Joshua Kurlantzick stresses the need for greater trade liberalization at the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation Summit in Singapore. CFR's Director of Asia Studies Elizabeth Economy advises Obama to listen to a range of Chinese voices beyond those of Communist party leaders while he's in China, and CFR's Scott Snyder says regional security issues as well as coordination of response to the global financial crisis will be on the Seoul agenda.

Japan (Nov. 12-13)

On this first trip to Japan as president, Obama is likely to face the deepest challenges in what was once seen as Washington's closest ally. With a new government in power in Tokyo, the bilateral relationship is showing signs of serious strain. Expectations are high-perhaps too high-that the Obama visit will resolve all problems.

APEC Summit, Singapore (Nov. 13-15)

On his first visit as president to the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) Summit, Obama should try to define why APEC even exists.

At APEC, Obama could go farther. The administration could outline a plan to reinvigorate defense ties with America's traditional allies in the region, Thailand and the Philippines, both of which have been ignored, while simultaneously working to ensure that both countries do not retreat from democracy, a serious threat. It also could institutionalize a regular, high-level dialogue with senior Indonesian policymakers, similar to the type of dialogue the United States has with Singapore and Vietnam.

China (Nov. 15-18)

When President Obama steps foot in Beijing, the words of Elvis Presley should be uppermost in his mind: Stop. Look. And listen. Certainly the president will have been advised by his very able Asia team, read countless briefing papers, and have a fully set menu of topics for discussion and negotiation. Yet the most important objective for the president's first trip to China should be to listen to as many Chinese voices as possible. No amount of time spent with second-hand insights can substitute for the president developing his own first-hand understanding of where China is today and where it is likely to be tomorrow.

South Korea (Nov. 18-19)

President Obama's last stop on his Asian tour will be South Korea, where he should receive a very warm welcome: A global poll conducted in the summer of 2009 by the Program on International Policy Attitudes at the University of Maryland showed that 88 percent of South Koreans surveyed have a lot or some confidence that Obama will do the right thing in world affairs, a rating 58 points higher than the one South Korean respondents gave to President Bush in the same survey conducted the previous year.

The perennial issue on the agenda for the two presidents is coordination of policy toward North Korea; this time both leaders are responding to a North Korean "charm offensive" in which Pyongyang has sought top-level contacts and improved relations with both the United States and South Korea, but has not expressed willingness to pursue denuclearization following North Korea's second nuclear test in May 2009. Both presidents will affirm their commitment to denuclearization of the Korean peninsula while coordinating respective bilateral engagement strategies with North Korea designed to keep denuclearization front-and-center in talks with Pyongyang.

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