By Ian Bremmer
President Obama embarks today on a tour of East Asia, a region central to U.S. geopolitical interests and its economic recovery. The primary goal is "strategic reassurance," a term Deputy Secretary of State Jim Steinberg has used to describe U.S. relations with China.
On Friday, he'll reassure Japan's brand new Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama that, despite well-publicized recent frictions in U.S.-Japanese relations and a broader U.S. engagement with China, his administration considers ties with Japan a cornerstone of U.S. foreign policy. And he'll seek some reassurance that the new DPJ government isn't about to revisit key assumptions in the relationship. Hatoyama will likely take the opportunity to "clarify" his view on the importance of the security partnership. Throw in a highly publicized Obama speech on Saturday, and we can expect an easing of suspicion and a lot of warm smiles, especially since the two sides now appear to have a deal on a joint-commission to resolve the Okinawa troops and base relocation issues.
On Sunday, Obama will be in Singapore, where he'll reassure Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong that the US isn't planning on reducing its Asian presence anytime soon. He'll then join the festivities at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit. During the meetings, there will be early discussion of an "Asian Economic Community" and rumors that Obama is involved in discussion with ASEAN leaders on a U.S.-ASEAN free trade agreement -- though he'll more likely simply be offering reassurance that his government hasn't set its trade agenda on indefinite hold. The meeting will end with public pledges from all sides to reject protectionism, the sort of empty reassurances we've seen in recent months at G20 meetings in Washington and London. Much of the media focus will be on the silk shirts and blouses inspired by Singapore's Peranakan culture that the leaders will be wearing.
More interesting are the side meetings that we'll hear much less about. Obama is scheduled to sit down with Myanmar's prime minister to reassure him that the United States is willing to engage the country's military junta if there's any prospect that engagement might yield results. Back home, Obama will reassure critics in Washington that he won't move to lift sanctions until Myanmar's generals offer something of substance. He's also scheduled to meet with Indonesian President Yudhoyono to assure him that the U.S. views the emerging regional player as a valuable local partner, and with Russia's President Medvedev to assure him that his administration is serious about improving strained relations with Moscow.
On Monday, Obama
heads for Shanghai and Beijing for a three-day visit that includes some
sightseeing and a Q&A with Chinese students around meetings with President
Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao. The talking points for these sessions are
nearly as ambitious as what you'd expect from one of those G20 meetings. There
will be discussion of the recently contentious U.S.-Chinese trade relationship,
energy, human rights, stability in Pakistan and Afghanistan, and the nuclear
programs in North Korea and Iran. Obama can reassure China's leaders that he
seeks mutually profitable engagement with the one subject he's NOT likely to
bring up: The value of China's currency. The Chinese wouldn't welcome the
discussion, and Obama has no interest in inviting the Chinese to comment on the
state of the U.S. economy and Washington's role in it.
If there's any tangible progress from Obama's time in China, it will be on climate change/green energy issues. There may well be an agreement to expand joint development and investment in renewable energy technology. It won't be a true "breakthrough," but given the low likelihood that anything especially important comes out of climate change meetings in Copenhagen next month, the Obama team will use any sign of modest progress to reassure skeptics of his commitment on the issue and to tout the trip as a success.
On the way home, Obama will stop off in Seoul to tell South Korean President Lee Myung-bak that KORUS, the U.S.-South Korean free trade agreement, isn't dead. He'll also reassure Lee that, though the US won't reduce troop levels on the peninsula, Washington can help make their stay a little easier for South Korea's government to manage.
Ian Bremmer is president of Eurasia Group.
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