Departing Friday on a nine-day trip back to his boyhood roots in the Pacific Rim, President Obama will pursue what aides say is a long-range goal to fundamentally shift the focus of U.S. economic and military influence toward Asia.
“It’s the fastest-growing economic region in the world,” said Ben Rhodes, White House deputy national security adviser for strategic communications. “The markets that are growing in the Asia-Pacific are ones that we want to be competitive in going forward.”
Mr. Obama and first lady Michelle Obama will travel to Honolulu, his birthplace, where he will host the annual Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit, a gathering of 21 nations that represent 55 percent of the world’s economic output.
“He’s got to make the case that if we are going to move out of our economic slowdown or recession that Asia is part of the answer,” said Ernie Bower, director of the Southeast Asia program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. “Asia is where the game is for the 21st century.”
Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton signaled this intended “pivot” toward Asia recently in an article in Foreign Policy magazine, characterizing it as a strategic consequence of winding down the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. But Mr. Obama has been working toward the shift since he took office three years ago.
“When he came into office, he came in with the insight that the U.S. was, overall, underbalanced with respect to Asia,” said Daniel Russell, the National Security Council’s senior director for Asian affairs.
Welcoming South Korea President Lee Myung-bak to the White House last month, Mr. Obama called the U.S. “a Pacific nation.” His itinerary next week also will take him to Indonesia, where Mr. Obama spent much of his childhood, for another summit of Southeast Asian countries that will address national security issues such as North Korea’s nuclear ambitions and the extent of China’s maritime claims in the South China Sea.
“He has a unique understanding of this part of the world because he has lived in it,” Mr. Rhodes said. “I think he has a deep appreciation of Asian and Pacific culture.”
Sandwiched between international meetings, the president’s schedule includes a day set aside for campaign fundraising in Hawaii on Monday. Mr. Obama will host a $1,000-a-plate brunch for supporters at the Walt Disney Co.’s new Aulani Resort & Spa at Ko Olina. Couples who contribute $35,800 to the president’s re-election fund and the Democratic National Committee will also be able to attend a “prereception greet” with the president. Mr. Obama last held a fundraiser in Hawaii in August 2008, which pulled in $1.3 million.
From Hawaii, Mr. Obama will fly to Canberra, Australia — a visit he has canceled twice before. He will also travel to Darwin, Australia, where an announcement is expected about establishing a permanent U.S. military presence at an Australian base there. The move is viewed as a response to China’s modernizing military and growing regional clout.
China’s military and economic power will be the subject of direct and indirect negotiations, ranging from U.S. efforts to curtail Chinese currency manipulation to questions about its territorial reach in the South China Sea, where Beijing claims most of the vast oil and gas deposits below the sea floor.
“The U.S. and Chinese delegations will be in a game of chicken over the South China Sea,” said Michael Green, chairman of the Japan program at CSIS.
Mr. Obama will meet with Chinese President Hu Jintao on the trip, as well as with new Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev and the leaders of India, Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand and the Philippines.
The president’s lengthy trip also comes at a time when a congressional supercommittee is struggling to complete its work of finding at least $1.2 trillion in debt reduction by a Nov. 23 deadline. White House aides say the president doesn’t need to be home while that work continues, and that he is in close contact with events in Washington no matter where he is traveling around the world.