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Obama Prepares for Asian Journey


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U.S. President Obama heads to East Asia this week for his first trans-Pacific trip in office.

Asians are waiting to take the measure of Barack Obama. The president got a rock star welcome earlier this year when he went to Europe and Africa. But in Asia, he faces lingering questions about his true intentions.

"I think people are interested in hearing more about his overall policy vision," says Nicholas Szecheney. He is a specialist in Asian affairs at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.

"Overall, you are going to see a combination of great interest, warm welcome, but also a series of questions because there is a lot of curiosity still about which direction President Obama would like to head on key policy issues," Szecheney adds.

Topping the list of issues is trade. President Obama often talks about exports as an important element of economic growth. But he offers few specifics.

Trade is a main component of U.S. relations with Japan - the president's first stop in Asia. So too is the future of military relations between the two allies. The new prime minister of Japan - Yukio Hatoyama - patterned his campaign for office on Mr. Obama's successful theme of change. But while there are similarities in political style, there are differences on U.S. basing rights and other issues.

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Ken Lieberthal is an Asia scholar with the Brookings Institution in Washington. "There is a lot of sorting out to do," he says, "And I think that is what will dominate those discussions."

Lieberthal was a top Asia advisor to former President Bill Clinton. He says the most important stop on the president's trip may be the one that - on the surface - makes the least news: the Asia-Pacific Economic forum in Singapore.

"I staffed that meeting for President Clinton during his second term in office when I worked at the White House and it was a remarkable gathering in that it really allows a lot of face time for these individuals both bilaterally and in various groupings," Lieberthal said.

APEC is not a decision-making body. But it does provide something perhaps more important - an opportunity for Pacific rim leaders to consult over the course of days without staff, and in a very personal way.

"I suspect President Obama is the kind of leader who can take advantage of that very effectively," Lieberthal says, "He relates to others easily and he is a bridge builder…..and he is going to get an earful of the kind of regional perspectives that will be very useful to him."

In China, the president's schedule will be more public, with stops in both Beijing and Shanghai, the Chinese financial capital.

The issues there are likely to be a mix of economic and strategic concerns - from the global economic recession, to climate change, to non-proliferation.

But long time China observers, like Douglas Spelman of the Woodrow Wilson Center, see another reason for the visit. "One of the primary purposes is for him to go to China - just to be there and physically see the place," he said.

He offers some advice to the president: be realistic…and be honest. "Be genuine in desiring cooperation, which I think he is, and be honest about the differences we have," Spelman states.

In a way, going to Asia - to Japan, Singapore, China and finally South Korea - is a bit of a homecoming for President Obama.

He spent part of his childhood in Indonesia, and his ties to the region are personal. Nicholas Szechenyi says the president is likely to refer to his biography during this trip, much as he did earlier this year in Africa. "I think people will really connect with that," Szechenyi says, "And I would expect the president to use his personal biography to demonstrate a commitment to the region."

The president will not visit Indonesia during this trip, but plans to return to Asia and Jakarta next year.

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