With strategic goals, President Obama visits Asia

In Yangon, Myanmar, a sign pointed to a visit by President Obama, who will stop there during a Southeast Asian tour.
In Yangon, Myanmar, a sign pointed to a visit by President Obama, who will stop there during a Southeast Asian tour.

WASHINGTON — On the stump this fall, President Obama boasted that he had ‘‘brought more trade cases against China’’ than his predecessor had. In an ad, he asserted that his challenger ‘‘never stood up to China.’’ During a debate, Obama said he expanded trade with other Asian nations ‘‘so that China starts feeling more pressure’’ to play by the rules.

The contest with Mitt Romney is done, but the contest with China is only gathering steam. After a political campaign spent talking about how tough he was with Beijing, the president left for Asia on Saturday for his first postelection overseas trip, a whirlwind swing through China’s backyard that is laden with geopolitical implications.

Obama will make a historic visit to Myanmar to mark the emergence of the long-isolated country and encourage its migration from China’s orbit toward a more democratic future with the West.


He will also stop in Thailand, America’s longtime ally in the region as well as a friend of China’s. And he will fly to Cambodia for a summit meeting of a Southeast Asian organization as the United States tries to increase its influence in that part of the region.

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With the election over, the White House has softened its language, and presents the trip not as an explicit attempt to contain China but as the next stage of its pivot to Asia, reorienting US foreign policy after a decade of wars in Iraq and Afghanistan toward the economic and political future of the Pacific. On the cusp of a second term, Obama sees such a shift as a mission for the next four years and a possible legacy.

‘‘The president’s trip marks the beginning of the next phase of our rebalancing effort,’’ Thomas E. Donilon, the president’s national security adviser, said in a speech at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. ‘‘When the president says the United States will play a larger and long-term role in the region, we intend to execute on that commitment.’’

But when the Obama team talks about ‘‘rebalancing,’’ Donilon said it meant ‘‘both toward the Asia-Pacific and within the Asia-Pacific,’’ meaning more engagement with nations such as Myanmar, Thailand, and Cambodia. As for China, he said, the relationship ‘‘has elements of both cooperation and competition.’’

The political centerpiece of the trip is the six-hour visit to Myanmar, which is considered strategic in the reorientation to Asia not only because of its location bordering China, but because its leaders have signaled their pique with China’s relentless search for natural resources and their willingness to tilt toward the West as a way of counterbalancing their imposing neighbor.


Although the trip to Yangon was scheduled to coincide with the Asian summit meeting, the symbolism of Obama’s visit — the first by a sitting US president — has not been lost on China, a longtime patron.

In Beijing, where Xi Jinping was just installed as the new leader in a once-in-a-decade transition, the trip is viewed as part of a continuing challenge to China’s rise. The government interprets America’s attention on the region, including the deployment of more troops and battleships, as an effort to encircle China.

‘‘The pivot is a very stupid choice,’’ said Jin Canrong, a professor at the School of International Studies at Renmin University in Beijing. ‘‘The United States has achieved nothing and only annoyed China. China can’t be contained.’’

On China’s periphery, where its rapid military modernization and territorial claims in resource-rich seas are viewed warily, Obama’s pivot is mostly welcomed. Many in the region, however, worry about whether the United States has the money and will to follow through.

There is also a question about what impact the United States can have. China has the edge in trade; every country in the region except the Philippines does more business with China than with the United States.


‘‘That’s happened over the last five years, faster than expected,’’ said Peter Drysdale, head of the East Asian Bureau of Economic Research at the Australian National University. ‘‘The disparity of the scale of what’s going on with China and the region compared to the United States will grow.’’

Obama will stop in Bangkok on Sunday before Myanmar.