BANGKOK – For President Obama, expanding U.S. influence in Asia is more than just countering China or opening up new markets to American businesses. It’s also about building his legacy.
Fresh off re-election, Obama will make a significant investment in that effort during a quick run through Southeast Asia that begins Sunday. In addition to stops in Thailand and Cambodia, the president will make a historic visit to Myanmar, where his administration has led efforts to ease the once pariah nation out of international isolation.
The trip marks Obama’s fourth visit to Asia in as many years. He kicks off his schedule in Bangkok. Aides say Obama will be a regular visitor to the region over the next four years as well.
“Continuing to fill in our pivot to Asia will be a critical part of the president’s second term and ultimately his foreign policy legacy,” said Ben Rhodes, deputy national security adviser.
The president’s motivations in Asia are personal and strategic.
Obama, who was born in Hawaii and lived in Indonesia as a child, has called himself America’s first “Pacific president.” The region gives him an opportunity to open up new markets for U.S. companies, promote democracy and ease fears of China’s rise by boosting U.S. military presence in area.
The president, like many of his predecessors, had hoped to cement his foreign policy legacy in the Middle East. He visited two major allies, Egypt and Saudi Arabia, on one of his first overseas trips as president and attempted to revive peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians.
But those talks stalled, and fresh outbursts of violence between Israel and the Palestinians make the prospects of a peace accord appear increasingly slim. The Obama-backed Arab Spring democracy push has had mixed results so far, with Islamists taking power in Egypt and progress in Libya tainted by the deadly attacks on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi. Obama hasn’t been back to the region since 2009.
In Asia, however, Obama will be viewed as something of an elder statesman when he returns. The region is undergoing significant leadership changes, most notably in China, where the Communist Party tapped new leaders last week. Japan and South Korea will both hold new elections soon.
“Most of the leaders he’ll meet with will not have a tenure as long as he will as president,” said Michael Green, an Asia scholar at the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies. “So he’ll go into this in a very strong position.”
The centerpiece of Obama’s whirlwind Asia tour is his visit to Myanmar. It will be the first time a U.S. president has visited the former pariah state.
Myanmar has become something of a pet project for Obama and his national security aides, who have cheered the country’s significant strides toward democracy. Obama lifted some U.S. penalties on Myanmar, appointed a permanent U.S. ambassador and hosted democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi at the White House this year.
Many of the same strategic motivations behind Obama’s larger focus on Asia are at play in Myanmar, which is known by the U.S. as Burma.
The country long has oriented itself toward China, but the easing of sanctions gives U.S. businesses a chance to gain a foothold there. It’s also an opportunity for the Obama administration to show other nations that there are benefits to aligning with the U.S.