The stunning terrorist attack in Paris will not change President Obama’s travel plans. After a hastily scheduled meeting of his National Security Council meeting Saturday, he’ll still participate in a week of international summitry in three countries with more than 50 other leaders. But the global revulsion at the bloodshed on the streets of the French capital has overshadowed other topics and moved terrorism to the top of the agenda.
By week’s end, the president will have traveled 23,000 miles to three countries to attend four summits—the G-20 Sunday and Monday in Antalya, Turkey; the Asia Pacific Economic forum Tuesday through Thursday in Manila, the Philippines; Association of Southeast Asia Nations and the East Asia Summit Friday, Saturday, and Sunday in Kuala Lumpur, Malyasia. While in Turkey, the president also was scheduled to meet with the other leaders of what is known as the Quint—the United States, Britain, Germany, France, and Italy—an informal grouping of the most powerful leaders of the European Union and the United States, currently concerned with the situations in Ukraine and Syria. But French President Francois Hollande will not be there, instead keeping in close contact with Obama and the other leaders by phone.
Even before the French attack, the worsening situation in Syria, the growing concern about the Islamic State terrorists, and the desperate refugee situation was expected to receive high-level attention even though the G-20, which includes countries with 85 percent of the world’s gross domestic product, usually focuses only on economic issues. To have so many world leaders right on Syria’s border forces the issue. In Manila and Kuala Lumpur, the focus swings to Obama’s rebalancing effort and the concern among U.S. allies of an emboldened China. Many of those allies have been particularly worried about China’s buildup of a submerged reef in the South China Sea and its claim of sovereignty. To the relief of the allies, the U.S. Navy challenged that claim in late October by sending the USS Lassen within 12 nautical miles of the reef in what is known as a “freedom of navigation” exercise.
It was “welcome in the region because it was long overdue,” said Michael J. Green, a senior member of President George W. Bush’s National Security Council staff and now senior vice president for Asia at CSIS. It showed, Goto told National Journal, that the United States “is able to push back on what the Chinese are putting forward. That’s the big difference between two years ago when Obama was a no-show.” It comes at a time, she said, when the Chinese “have demonstrated not only more aggression in the South China Sea but, more broadly, that it is providing an alternative vision for countries in the region.”
Prior to the news from Paris, the White House had seen the week of summits as a chance to push the president’s diplomatic “pivot to Asia” and had hoped to build on the momentum from the successful completion of the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade negotiations and a show of force in the South China Sea that was broadly welcomed by American allies in the region. They also were aware of the contrast with attempts to sell the pivot at summits the last two years.
In 2013, Obama’s rebalancing suffered a blow when a budget impasse forced a government shutdown and kept the president from attending summits in Indonesia and Brunei. Then, in 2014, domestic politics again weakened his hand, as he headed to China a week after his party was drubbed in midterm elections and left him viewed in Asia as a marginalized player too damaged to be able to deliver either on TPP or on his commitments to the region.
As Paris reminded all, big challenges remain, including Syria, an emboldened Islamic State, a rapidly militarizing China, human-rights abuses in several countries, and the politics of getting TPP ratified in many of the participating 12 countries. But the U.S. president is no longer viewed as marginalized or unable to provide more than lip service to Asia, even though he is a lame duck entering his final year in office.
“They still remember two years ago when we had the budget showdown and he couldn’t go. That really was a low point in the engagement in Asia,” said Shihoko Goto, a senior Northeast Asia analyst at the Wilson Center’s Asia Program. “It showed the United States as unable to follow through on its commitment. Now, by showing up, he is showing that he really means what he says.”
Matthew P. Goodman, who was in charge of planning for these Asian summits when he was on the National Security Council staff in Obama’s first term, said the president is also strengthened by the robust growth of the American economy. “The president is heading out on this whirlwind trip in a very strong position,” he said. “The U.S. is the only country, really, in the G-20 that is on a positive growth trajectory.”
Ernest Z. Bower, who holds the Sumitro Chair for Southeast Asia Studies at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said the president is in surprisingly good shape. “If you had asked me what the president needed to do before he traveled to Asia, I would have said get the TPP done, notify Congress, and do the (Freedom of Navigation) ops in the South China Sea. They’ve done it,” he said, observing, “The White House is really feeling its oats.”
At the White House, they are just relieved to be able to plan Obama’s travels without government shutdowns and electoral defeats. “I’m mindful of the Woody Allen maxim of how much of life is showing up,” said Ben Rhodes, the deputy National security adviser. “And in Asia, it really matters to attend these summits at the level of the leader.” He added, “We want the United States to be at the table at the Asia-Pacific in shaping the future of the region and signaling that we’re going to be present.” To laughs, he told reporters at the White House, “When we’re not at the table, we’re on the menu.”
On Wednesday, the president will meet with the leaders of the 11 other countries who signed the TPP, the first time they have been together since the conclusion of the negotiations. Obama may face some questions there about the outlook for the pact in the U.S. Congress. But, with all the leaders facing their own ratification procedures, the session will be more celebration than anything else.
Even with his stronger hand, Obama may face questions from the other leaders about his successor, especially with Asia policy and tough talk about China coming up so often in the Republican candidates’ debates. “I think they’re going to be very curious about the oddities in this election cycle,” said Green, who said he is finding many senior political leaders in Asia raising the campaign to “nervously ask for reassurance that everything’s going to be OK.”
While on the trip, the president will hold one-on-one meetings with several of his counterparts, including the newly elected leaders of Canada and Australia. No such meetings are planned with either Xi Jinping of China or Vladimir Putin of Russia, despite ongoing disputes with both leaders. The national security adviser, Susan Rice, said the lack of a scheduled session with Putin is not troubling, stating, “We fully expect they’ll have ample opportunity for discussion” on the sidelines of the summits.
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