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Economic Forecasts

Obama Faces Challenges on Trip to Asia

Allies and trading partners want assurances that Obama is paying attention and willing to act.

On Thursday, President Obama departs for East Asia, his first visit to the region since taking office. It won’t be an easy one.

The region’s leaders generally got on well with George W. Bush. Japan’s succession of prime ministers had little reason to doubt the U.S. commitment to Japanese security on Bush’s watch. China found in him a relatively pragmatic partner that could be counted on to block the more-protectionist impulses of both Democrats and of an increasing number of Republicans. And while U.S. relations with South Korea were strained during much of Bush’s tenure, they improved noticeably when the conservative President Lee Myung-bak succeeded the erratic Roh Moo-hyun.

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Obama, by contrast, is still largely an unknown quantity in the region. To the extent that Obama has been watching the continent at all, his focus has been on South and Central Asia. Domestic political concerns have soaked up most of his remaining bandwidth, leaving little time for dealing with the Pacific Rim.

The most productive thing Obama can do on his tour is to keep U.S.-Asian relations stable. The region’s leaders need reassurance that their main concerns are not lost in the shuffle. If they’re convinced that the U.S. is too distracted to deal with them—or worse, too weak—they’ll come up with their own solutions that exclude the U.S., with potentially unpleasant consequences.

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In Tokyo, Obama will have to deal with tensions in the U.S.-Japan security relationship. Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama wants to shut the U.S. air base on Okinawa, which Washington wants to keep, and he wants the U.S. to pay more of the costs of moving the Marines from Okinawa to Guam. Both issues have long been a sore point in Japanese domestic politics. And both came up repeatedly in the Democratic Party of Japan’s election campaign this summer, when it bounced the long-ruling Liberal Democratic Party from office. Tokyo also wants reassurance about U.S. commitments to anti-missile defense, in light of the Obama administration’s cutbacks to such technology elsewhere and the long-running standoff over North Korea’s nuclear weapons program.

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Obama will have to cover a wide gamut of issues with China’s Hu Jintao: trade, climate change, nuclear non-proliferation and even Sino-Indian tensions, which threaten to spill over into Pakistan and Afghanistan. Above all, China needs reaffirmation of U.S. interest in a long-term, constructive relationship. There’s growing doubt in Chinese leadership circles that it’s worth the effort, given a perception that U.S. failures were largely to blame for the global recession.

Korea and Southeast Asia want reassurance that Obama has a trade policy.President Lee Myung-bak pushed hard to get the Korea-U.S. Free Trade Agreement through South Korea’s National Assembly, using up much of his political capital. He wants to see it back on track, both for strategic and for economic reasons. But Congress won’t approve it without better access to Korea for U.S. auto exports. Southeast Asian leaders meeting with Obama at the APEC summit in Singapore will press for greater access to the U.S. market to offset Chinese competition. With Obama’s full plate, he won’t have much time to spare on either back home.

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