- 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.”

Other topics that will emerge repeatedly over the course of the week include global climate change, the resumption of “six-party talks” over North Korea’s nuclear programs and support for U.S.-led efforts to deter Iran’s nuclear ambitions and to bring greater security to Afghanistan and Pakistan.

But those issues may not be as firmly on the minds of the citizens in Japan, Singapore, China and South Korea, who are expected to warmly greet an American president with a high personal popularity.

In Japan, the president will arrive amid continuing tensions over the presence of American military bases on Japanese soil. On Sunday, thousands of Japanese rallied in the city of Nago to protest the U.S. presence on Okinawa.

In 2006, after 13 years of negotiations, the George W. Bush administration signed an agreement to make Nago the home to an airfield to replace the Marine Corps’ Air Station Futenma. U.S. negotiators also agreed to move 8,000 Marines from Okinawa to Guam.

But the new Japanese prime minister, Yukio Hatoyama, campaigned on a promise to further reduce the American military presence, which has been a persistent irritant as the areas around the military bases have transformed from rural villages to sprawling suburban communities.

How and whether the issue would surface during Mr. Obama’s visit have been the topics of intense discussion behind the scenes. The president’s aides expressed confidence this week that they had succeeded in taking the base question off the agenda for his visit.

Mr. Obama tried to address the dispute in a pre-trip interview with Japanese television reporters this week, saying he is “confident that once that review is completed that they will conclude that the alliance that we have, the basing arrangements that have been discussed, all those things serve the interests of Japan.”

But none of that is expected to come to a head during Mr. Obama’s visit.

“I don’t see the Okinawa base issue being a dominant or essential issue on the visit,” Mr. Bader said during a conference call with reporters this week. “I don’t see this issue as being ripe for resolution or a focus of the visit. I think that there will be ongoing discussions beyond the visit during which we will work out the differences.”

Administration officials were equally confident that they can skirt a prickly topic in South Korea - a free-trade agreement that has languished in Congress over U.S. efforts to open the South Korean market to American automakers.

Several private analysts said in interviews that they expect the South Koreans to press the president for progress on the trade pact, even though the auto issue has not been resolved. Mr. Obama’s aides have said they are open to addressing the issue but are not making promises for this trip.

“He has directed his Cabinet to look for ways to overcome the differences between the two sides,” Mr. Bader said.

Perhaps the most vexing issue Mr. Obama will face will come during his three-day visit to Shanghai and Beijing. Human rights groups have been pressing the president to find some way to force the rights issue during his talks with Chinese leaders.

One group urged Mr. Obama to call on his background as a civil rights lawyer to urge China to restore the licenses of civil rights lawyers there. Another group wants the president to make a public call for religious freedom or to address the tensions over the treatment of ethnic minorities in such places as Tibet and Xinjiang.

But the Obama administration has compiled a spotty track record on such questions, human rights analysts said.

In February, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton angered American rights groups by telling reporters that “pressing on those issues can’t interfere with the global economic crisis, the global climate change crisis, and the security crisis.”

Activists were further angered this summer when the president declined to schedule a meeting with the Tibetan spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama, during his visit to Washington.

In recent days, the White House has had to defer releasing a full itinerary for the China visit because some details were unresolved. One lingering question: Who will attend the president’s town-hall meeting with students in Shanghai, and how widely will his comments there be broadcast?

“The president would appreciate the opportunity to reach the broadest possible audience,” Mr. Rhodes said. “That’s always a priority of his.”

He said that on issues such as tickets for the town-hall event, “I wouldn’t want to comment on it from here, simply because we’re working out the details of the event in Shanghai through our folks on the ground there.”

David Kramer, who served as assistant secretary of state for democracy, human rights, and labor under President George W. Bush, said he believes the Bush administration missed opportunities to address the issue in China, especially when Mr. Bush traveled to Beijing for the 2008 Olympics.

And Mr. Kramer argued that Mr. Obama would be making a similar mistake if he deferred too much to his Chinese hosts.

“The Chinese value these kinds of visits enormously,” Mr. Kramer said. “They attach great importance to them. We shouldn’t underestimate the importance of these visits to them. That’s why they tend to give us more leeway than we typically push for.”

There’s no question, though, that the Obama administration wants to emerge from this visit to China with a relationship that is stronger, not more strained.

“China is an essential player on the global issues that … are the center of our agenda: global economic recovery, climate change, energy, North Korea, Iran, nonproliferation issues generally, success in Afghanistan and Pakistan, arms controls,” Mr. Bader said. “On none of these issues can we succeed without China’s cooperation.”

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