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How Obama Lost His Asian Friends

Author: Joshua Kurlantzick, Senior Fellow for Southeast Asia
July 6, 2010


While European leaders squabbled over the right kind of deficit reduction and whose country boasts the finest football side, Barack Obama used the recent G20 summit of leading economic powers in Toronto to make a different case: that the United States is dedicated to building a closer relationship with Asia. Though the Gulf of Mexico oil spill and the firing of Gen. Stanley McChrystal had distracted him before the summit, the president spent much of his time at the meeting with Asian leaders, including private sit-downs with the leaders of Japan, Indonesia, China, India, and South Korea. During the summit Obama also invited Chinese President Hu Jintao to Washington for a state visit, the kind of formal occasion Chinese leaders crave. “You'll note that five out of the six bilaterals mentioned are with Asia-Pacific countries,” one senior administration official told reporters in a briefing about the G20 meeting. “That is, I think, an eloquent demonstration of the importance that the president attaches to Asia, the importance of Asia to our political security and economic interests.”

Obama tried to deliver some concrete results as well to demonstrate his focus on Asia. After a year of suggesting the administration might just scuttle the U.S.–South Korea free-trade deal signed during the Bush administration, in late June Obama announced that the White House would push for its ratification, which would create the most important American trade deal since the North American Free Trade Agreement was passed early in the Clinton administration. Obama also set a specific timetable, calling for the Korea deal to be completed by November.

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