- The Washington Times - Wednesday, November 11, 2009

President Obama departs late Wednesday on his first official trip to Asia, capping weeks of work by his foreign policy team to head off the sorts of embarrassments that could make the difference between a positive outreach mission and a diplomatic dud.

At his first stop in Japan, U.S. officials have worked to forestall a thorny debate over American military bases. In Southeast Asia, they have tried to dampen expectations for the first-ever interaction between an American president and the brutal military ruler in Myanmar. In South Korea, discussion of Seoul’s refusal to import American cars will take a back seat to expressing gratitude for South Korean contributions to the war in Afghanistan.

And in China, the administration’s top trade officials have worked to smooth over a recent flap over low-cost Chinese tire imports, while Mr. Obama’s advance team has struggled to hash out an itinerary that will enable Mr. Obama to address the Chinese people directly.

Where the delicate subject of human rights will fit into his agenda with Chinese leaders is also unclear. It is likely not a coincidence, though, that Mr. Obama will arrive in Shanghai Sunday night - late enough so he will not have to worry about attending church in China.

“By definition, this is going to be a public relations trip,” said Douglas H. Paal, vice president for studies at the Carnegie Endowment for Peace and a former top U.S. diplomat in Taiwan.

His colleague, China analyst Michael Swaine, agreed, saying the president’s one major foreign policy address during the trip, to be given in Tokyo, would avoid issues over which the U.S. and Asian nations have experienced tensions.

“I’m pretty confident that speech will strike strong notes of how important the alliance is,” Mr. Swaine said. The speech will emphasize “the continued U.S. commitment and desire to have the alliance move forward” and include “a lot of positive statements.”

The president’s eight-day, four-country mission, his advisers agree, is less about resolving long-standing disputes than about setting a new tone for U.S.-Asian relations. On his first major trip to the region as president, they say, Mr. Obama will almost exclusively accentuate the positive.

“The president looks forward to this attempt to really renew America’s alliances in the region, to continue to forge new partnerships, and to make progress on a whole series of issues,” said Ben Rhodes, the deputy national security adviser for strategic communications.

“There’s a broad agenda that overlays the president’s whole trip,” he said. “I think the overarching theme is that America is a Pacific nation, it understands the importance of Asia in the 21st century, and it’s going to be very engaged in a very comprehensive way to make progress on a whole series of issues that are critical for our prosperity and our security.”

When Mr. Obama concludes his tour in South Korea next week, success will be measured less by his ability to score major foreign policy victories than by his ability to avoid stepping on political land mines.

Which is not to say the president does not have some weighty issues on his schedule.

One big component of the trip will be an effort to push China and its neighbors to develop more of a consumer culture. Some economists say that the failure of Asian economies to devote more of their savings to boosting domestic consumption has helped produce massive trade imbalances between Asia and the West.

“The notion that the global economy could not pick up where it left off before this crisis began - with the U.S. running massive trade deficits and Asian countries simply exporting massive amounts of products to the U.S. and the chief prosperity based on the profligacy of the American consumer - that is not a sustainable model,” said Jeffrey Bader, a special assistant to Mr. Obama on the National Security Council, in a speech last week at the Brookings Institution. “We have been very clear to the Chinese about that. That recovery will require different models and different steps by both sides.”

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