WASHINGTON - -President Barack Obama is to board Air Force One today for a trip to Asia, his first visit to the region since he took office. Obama will stop first in Tokyo, where he will deliver a major speech on his Pacific Rim policy and also meet with Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama. Other countries on the itinerary are China, Singapore and South Korea.
Obama will use the weeklong trip to strengthen ties to Asian leaders and send a strong message that the U.S. is "an Asia-Pacific nation and we are there for the long haul," as one administration official put it.
Obama will need willing Asian partners as he works to combat nuclear proliferation, reduce the threat of global warming and invigorate the world economy. But the White House played down expectations that concrete agreements would result right away.
That Obama is leaving the country amid a bitter recession underscores Asia's importance. "This is the fastest growing economic region in the world," said Ben Rhodes, a deputy national security adviser.
Obama has visited Europe and Africa; Asia is a region he can't neglect. Strains are apparent. Over the past decade, perceptions have risen that China is the dominant player in the region while America's influence has ebbed. Even a reliable ally, Japan, has complained about being a kind of junior partner to the United States.
In face-to-face meetings with Asian leaders and informal encounters with students, Obama will try to rebuild old alliances and create new ones.
What he hopes to accomplish
White House aides are setting the bar low, not promising much in the way of tangible "deliverables" coming out of the trip. But Obama will try to make headway on a number of crucial economic, environmental and military matters. He particularly wants the region to pump up consumer purchases so that the U.S. can find a bigger market for its exports.
"The United States does an extraordinary amount of business in this region, and the president is very committed to being competitive in this region in the 21st century," Rhodes said. Translation: Obama wants to ease the U.S. recession by selling more products to Asia.
With a new president, there is always the possibility of an unguarded comment that could touch off a diplomatic crisis. But foreign policy experts say Obama is showing himself to be a disciplined head of state. Whereas President George W. Bush would often freelance on foreign trips - deviating from the formal agenda - Obama sticks to the script, they said.
"What I hear about President Obama is he's very ... lawyerlike and he very scrupulously reads his talking points and articulates things in the complete sentences they're written in, whereas President Bush would mangle or shorten or add colorful anecdotes," said Michael Green of the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
If Obama faces any real risk, it's the political backlash that could result if American voters feel he is spending too much time abroad while job losses mount back home.
China, China, China
Pick an issue that's important to the U.S. and you'll find a China connection. North Korean and Iranian nuclear aims? Obama needs China to push for nonproliferation. The recession? If Chinese households spend more, Americans can tap a larger foreign market. Global warming? China is the largest producer of carbon dioxide, the main global warming pollutant. It's no accident that Obama will spend nearly half the trip in China.
"China is an essential player on the global issues that are at the center of our agenda," said Jeffrey Bader of the National Security Council. "On none of these issues can we succeed without China's cooperation."
Obama will hold a town hall-style meeting with students in Shanghai. He'll then fly to Beijing for a meeting with President Hu Jintao. Expect Obama to raise the issue of human rights. He also will work in a sightseeing visit to the Great Wall.