Obama’s Pacific Trip: What Will Be the President’s Message?

Continuing the pattern established during his first two years in office, President Obama departs Friday on a major November trip across the Pacific. At the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) forum in Honolulu, through bilateral defense agreements to be signed in Australia, and at the U.S.-ASEAN Summit and the East Asia Summit in Bali, the president will reinforce America’s enduring commitment to regional diplomacy, economics and security.

However, uncertainty pervades the president’s visit, and the stakes arguably have become far larger than in prior years. Obama confronts acute political polarization at home and a daunting reelection challenge that will increasingly dominate his time and attention. Despite repeated assurances from senior U.S. officials about the centrality of Asia and the Pacific to U.S. interests, the acute dysfunction in American politics during 2011 has triggered widespread unease within the region about American resilience, constancy and strategic purpose. The president will need to counteract these perceptions and impart how the United States seeks to contribute to the future regional order.

No one expects President Obama to offer a highly elaborated vision of the Asia-Pacific future. At the same time, proposing a comprehensive regional economic and security architecture seems overly ambitious and quite possibly unhelpful. But unregulated power rivalries at a time of a weakened, domestically preoccupied United States could put regional security and prosperity at risk. These issues could easily become the unspoken subtext over the next ten days. The opportunity for frank discussion will be missed if such issues are minimized, or ignored altogether.

Much of the regional unease focuses on the rapid ascendance of China, and worries that insufficient American involvement will ultimately enable China to supplant the United States within the region. At the same time, proposals for a U.S.-China “G-2” or (alternatively) efforts to exclude or marginalize China in regional politics are comparably misguided. America and China are now the world’s two largest economic powers, but this does not warrant an effort to reintroduce bipolarity into the international system. It is an outcome that none in the region –including China—seek, and would not be conducive to longer-term regional stability.

The strategic challenge for the United States is to enmesh emerging major powers within enhanced regional arrangements in which the United States is also a full participant, while affirming American links to allies and regional partners who want to avoid “either or” strategic choices. The critical questions are driven less by perceptions of imminent threat, and more by larger uncertainties and power asymmetries that could develop in the absence of clear strategic purpose and direction.
The United States thus needs to counter regional fears by offering an inclusive conception of regional order. Enhanced trade partnerships could provide some of the key building blocks in this process. President Obama will emphasize export-led growth as a primary means to revive America’s economic performance. The Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) will be a central part of this message. But the TPP in its extant form represents an overly constricted approach to trade ties across the Pacific; to many observers, it seems a thinly disguised means to counter China’s growing economic influence.

At the same time, Obama’s visit is not without significant political risks for the president. The administration and the Republican leadership remain mired in a highly partisan stalemate over the ballooning federal debt and how to address it. The deliberations of the Congressional super committee are due to conclude by Thanksgiving. Without an agreement, even sharper cuts in U.S. government expenditure (including defense expenditure) would be mandated in 2013. Such an outcome would directly undermine American aspirations to a central role in the regional future. An immobilized political process in Washington, D.C. during the president’s travels can only diminish the seriousness of strategic purpose that the United States seeks to convey, and that nearly all in the region want to see.