In the midst of the contentious healthcare debate raging on Capitol Hill, not to mention lingering decisions about the way forward in Afghanistan and the recent depressing news that the US domestic jobless rate passed the 10% mark, President Barack Obama will travel through Asia. Over the next seven days, he will conduct some much-needed face-to-face diplomacy in that part of the world.
He has his work cut out for him. The region is the fastest-growing economy in the world right now. US influence there has been on the decline over the past decade. China is on the rise in influence and as both a military and economic power.
From both a diplomatic and a PR perspective, his trip could be a critical turning point in reversing or changing some of these trends. As someone with linkages to Asia going all the way back to his childhood in Indonesia, Obama has a unique opportunity – and credibility – to redefine the US' role in the region. It will also be an opportunity for the president to make and secure commitments that could affect our country for years to come.
It's an ambitious and grueling trip: Obama will be visiting four countries in seven days. During that time he will also attend the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) forum in Singapore, as well as meet with representatives from the countries in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). In addition to those meetings, he will also conduct bilateral discussions with no fewer than eight Asian leaders, conduct at least four press conferences, as well as participate in a dizzying array of public events, including appearances at a town hall in China and delivering at least two major policy speeches.
Each one of these events is a critical opportunity for the president to define himself and his vision for US engagement with Asia. He has a daunting list of issues to address with our allies there: reinvigorating our relationship with Japan, climate change, ever-growing and competing energy needs, monetary and fiscal policy, the trade agenda with South Korea, nuclear non-proliferation in both Iran and North Korea, human rights in China and Burma, and our continued military presence in Japan, just to name a few.
Next week's trip is indeed an important one, both for the president as well as the US. To be successful, he needs to wield the “hard power” of US economic might and its security presence in the region. He also needs to harness the “soft power” of public diplomacy, the US' moral integrity and his considerable communications skills.
There are many opportunities during this trip for President Obama to articulate the case for our continued active engagement in the region and extracting pledges of cooperation that have the potential of creating new American jobs, enhancing military cooperation, improving human rights and more. Let's hope he takes advantage of them.
Robert Tappan, a former senior official at the US Department of State, is president of Weber Merritt, a public affairs firm based in Washington, DC. His monthly column will look at issues advocacy and related public affairs topics. He can be reached at: email@example.com.