President Obama Tours Asia

President Obama Tours Asia

Ahead of President Obama’s Asia trip, CFR experts Sheila Smith, Joshua Kurlantzick, Elizabeth Economy, and Scott Snyder discuss what the president should focus on during his visit to Japan, Singapore, China, and South Korea.

November 3, 2009 2:28 pm (EST)

Expert Roundup
CFR fellows and outside experts weigh in to provide a variety of perspectives on a foreign policy topic in the news.

President Barack Obama will travel to Asia from November 13 -19 to strengthen U.S. cooperation with this growing center of global power. A long list of issues crowds the U.S. policy agenda in the region: security, economic, environment, and energy among others. Denuclearization of North Korea, China’s holding of U.S. debt, the realignment of U.S. security forces in Japan, and international agreements on trade and climate change may pose challenges to the president as he tours the region.

More From Our Experts

For the president’s first stop, in Tokyo, CFR’s Senior Fellow for Japan Studies Sheila Smith lays out an agenda for revitalizing the U.S. relationship with a new Japanese government. Southeast Asia Fellow Joshua Kurlantzick stresses the need for greater trade liberalization at the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation Summit in Singapore. CFR’s Director of Asia Studies Elizabeth Economy advises Obama to listen to a range of Chinese voices beyond those of Communist party leaders while he’s in China, and CFR’s Scott Snyder says regional security issues as well as coordination of response to the global financial crisis will be on the Seoul agenda. Ahead of the president’s trip, a new Council Special Report urges the administration to play a more strategic role in the changing landscape of Asian multilateral organizations. It also calls for the United States to have more vigorous economic engagement with the region. --Jayshree Bajoria, Staff Writer,

Sheila A. Smith, Senior Fellow for Japan Studies, Council on Foreign Relations

Japan (Nov 13 -14)

More on:


Politics and Government

United States

On this first trip to Japan as president, Obama is likely to face the deepest challenges in what was once seen as Washington’s closest ally. With a new government in power in Tokyo, the bilateral relationship is showing signs of serious strain. Expectations are high-perhaps too high-that the Obama visit will resolve all problems.

Current tensions have their origins in both Washington and Tokyo. Japan’s new government seems intent on reviewing core policies related to the U.S. military presence in Japan. The most conspicuous is the impending decision to build a new runway for the U.S. Marines stationed in Okinawa. This is an issue both governments have been grappling with for over a decade and competing interests have made it a political quagmire. But Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama has also suggested a review of the Status of Forces Agreement that sets the terms of the day-to-day management of U.S. troops in Japan and the policy of Japanese Host Nation Support to offset costs of maintaining forces there.

Like any new government, the Hatoyama cabinet has spoken with many-and at times, conflicting-voices on this issue, making it difficult to anticipate how and when decisions were to be made. But the greatest concern in Washington is that military basing issues will dominate the bilateral agenda during the president’s visit. U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates’ trip to Tokyo last month sought to clarify the U.S. position on these issues, but it raised a storm of controversy over the idea that Washington was trying to impose its will on Japan’s fledgling government.

More From Our Experts

For this visit to succeed, President Obama will need to aim high - and aim for an agenda with Tokyo that reflects Japan’s expertise and capabilities at a time of tremendous global need. The leaders of the world’s two largest economies should put economic growth and financial stability at the top of their list of priorities. Moreover, Obama and Hatoyama share a deep concern for sustainable energy policy and a global strategy for confronting climate change. Japan and the United States have much to gain from cooperation on new technology development, as well as on energizing the global effort to develop a workable formula for CO2 reductions.

Finally, the president and the prime minister should focus on Northeast Asia and end speculation that Tokyo wants to enhance its relationship with its neighbors at Washington’s expense. The challenge of working together to contain proliferation from Pyongyang continues.

More on:


Politics and Government

United States

The president will want to set parameters for a new-and joint-agenda for the United States and Japan, an agenda that he and the prime minister could endorse next November when he returns to Japan. First, however, he will need to end the acrimony that currently afflicts the "cornerstone" of our Asia policy.

Joshua Kurlantzick, Senior Fellow for Southeast Asia, Council on Foreign Relations

APEC Summit, Singapore (Nov 14 -15)

On his first visit as president to the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) Summit, Obama should try to define why APEC even exists. Conceived as an economic get-together for the most dynamic part of the globe, and designed to push trade and investment liberalization, in recent years APEC has become a talk shop for counterterrorism strategy, cooperation on battling pandemic disease, and too many other topics unrelated to the original mission. With the growing number of Asian regional organizations, from the East Asia Summit to the plethora of Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN)-related groups, APEC now has to fight hard for relevance, and a confused mission only makes this job harder.

Yet there is still a role for APEC. It should return to its roots, focusing on pushing trade integration in a region where commercial links are developing rapidly but a framework of trade liberalization lags far behind. In Southeast Asia, for instance, the ten ASEAN countries long ago vowed to create a truly integrated, seamless investment area by 2015, a goal they likely will miss. And without multilateral trade liberalization in place, the ASEAN countries have been free to put up protectionist barriers in the wake of the global financial crisis. Failed multilateral liberalization also aids China, which has stepped in and inked a staggering number of bilateral deals with countries across the region.

Even when its overall reputation suffers, the United States still maintains sizable prestige in Asia as an honest broker of trade liberalization. President Obama should make clear that Washington wants to return the gathering to this narrow-and important-focus.

Reengaging with APEC would have other benefits as well. It would show East Asian opinion leaders that Washington wants to play a more central role in Asia’s integration, rather than just standing on the sidelines as it has over the past decade. And it would demonstrate that the administration understands that form, as much as substance, matters in Asia - a lesson China understands well.

This year’s APEC meeting also offers Obama the opportunity to revitalize relations with Southeast Asia, which in recent years has become the hub of Asia’s new regionalism. The administration already has taken the positive step of signing Southeast Asia’s Treaty of Amity and Cooperation, and it may be changing its policy toward Myanmar, which tends to receive an outsized share of U.S. policy attention on Southeast Asia.

At APEC, Obama could go farther. The administration could outline a plan to reinvigorate defense ties with America’s traditional allies in the region, Thailand and the Philippines, both of which have been ignored, while simultaneously working to ensure that both countries do not retreat from democracy, a serious threat. It also could institutionalize a regular, high-level dialogue with senior Indonesian policymakers, similar to the type of dialogue the United States has with Singapore and Vietnam.

Elizabeth C. Economy, C.V. Starr Senior Fellow and Director for Asia Studies, Council on Foreign Relations

China (Nov 15-18)

When President Obama steps foot in Beijing, the words of Elvis Presley should be uppermost in his mind: Stop. Look. And listen. Certainly the president will have been advised by his very able Asia team, read countless briefing papers, and have a fully set menu of topics for discussion and negotiation. Yet the most important objective for the president’s first trip to China should be to listen to as many Chinese voices as possible. No amount of time spent with second-hand insights can substitute for the president developing his own first-hand understanding of where China is today and where it is likely to be tomorrow.

China is in the midst of a significant political transition, and President Obama should make sure to stop by for a chat with the next generation of Chinese leaders (FP)-Li Keqiang, Li Yuanchao, and Xi Jinping. In just two-and-half years, they will be the ones President Obama faces across the dinner table. No doubt the president, like his predecessors, would also enjoy an exchange with some of China’s brightest lights-students at Fudan, Beijing or Qinghua Universities-and earn himself many young fans in the process.

An even greater understanding might come from meeting with those not currently in the pipeline to power. These Chinese can offer the president a much more nuanced and variegated picture of the country. President Obama could start by meeting with some journalists from Caijing or Southern Weekend, two of the most investigative, cutting-edge media enterprises. He could host a roundtable or two with civil society leaders and grassroots organizers-environmental NGO heads, public health advocates, religious leaders, and lawyers-involved in one of the many efforts to protect the Chinese people from abuse by the system. He could meet with the renowned artist Ai Weiwei, not merely to get a sampling of Chinese culture through contemporary art but also to hear about the artist’s experiences in trying to promote transparency in post-earthquake Sichuan. More than any president in recent history, Obama should be able to appreciate how different the view can look when you’re working on the ground for change.

It won’t be easy for President Obama to cut away from the formal banquets and endless rounds of talks on climate change, trade or proliferation, and numerous other topics. These are important issues where cooperation between the United States and China can make a real difference yet continues to elude us. Yet most of the real work is done before and after the president visits. If President Obama wants to develop his own vision for China policy for the next three to seven years, he’ll have to spend some time with Elvis outside the gates of Zhongnanhai.

Scott A. Snyder, Senior Fellow for Korea Studies and Director of the Program on U.S.-Korea Policy, Council on Foreign Relations

South Korea (Nov 18-19)

President Obama’s last stop on his Asian tour will be South Korea, where he should receive a very warm welcome: A global poll conducted in the summer of 2009 by the Program on International Policy Attitudes at the University of Maryland showed that 88 percent of South Koreans surveyed have a lot or some confidence that Obama will do the right thing in world affairs, a rating 58 points higher than the one South Korean respondents gave to President Bush in the same survey conducted the previous year. The South Korean President Lee Myung-bak’s public approval ratings have risen over 40 percent thanks to signs of an early South Korean economic recovery from the global financial crisis.

The perennial issue on the agenda for the two presidents is coordination of policy toward North Korea; this time both leaders are responding to a North Korean "charm offensive" in which Pyongyang has sought top-level contacts and improved relations with both the United States and South Korea, but has not expressed willingness to pursue denuclearization following North Korea’s second nuclear test in May 2009. Both presidents will affirm their commitment to denuclearization of the Korean peninsula while coordinating respective bilateral engagement strategies with North Korea designed to keep denuclearization front-and-center in talks with Pyongyang.

Obama will thank South Korea for deciding to send a provincial reconstruction team to Afghanistan and to provide military security for that team. This South Korean contribution is in line with the spirit of the Joint Vision Statement agreed to by the two presidents during Lee’s visit to the White House in June. Defense guidelines designed to implement that statement envision greater alliance cooperation to address global and regional security issues in addition to maintaining deterrence on the Korean peninsula. Lee may seek reassurances that the United States will not reduce its troop commitments in South Korea following recent comments by Chairman of U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Michael Mullen that U.S. forces deployed on the Korean peninsula might in the future be called upon to undertake missions in other theaters such as Afghanistan.

Coordination of next steps in responding to the global financial crisis may also be on the agenda given South Korea’s role as host of the G-20 leaders’ meeting in November 2010. Finally, Lee will push hard for Obama to make congressional consideration of the Korea-U.S. Free Trade Agreement (FTA) a priority of his administration following the health care debate, with the idea that the first quarter of 2010 might represent the last window of opportunity for consideration of the FTA prior to the 2010 U.S. congressional elections.


Top Stories on CFR


The Myanmar army is experiencing a rapid rise in defections and military losses, posing questions about the continued viability of the junta’s grip on power.


The two-year-old war in Ukraine—which is far from deadlocked—could pivot dramatically in the coming months. U.S. decisions will play a decisive role.


International lenders have pumped tens of billions of dollars into Egypt’s faltering economy amid the war in the Gaza Strip, but experts say the country’s economic crisis is not yet resolved.