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Politically Weak Obama to Face China

  • Luis Ramirez

U.S. President Barack Obama travels to economic summits in China, Myanmar and Australia beginning Sunday for a weeklong visit aimed at improving relations with Beijing, boosting American exports, and reassuring Asian partners in the face of China's increasingly aggressive behavior in the region.

Obama will face questions on the U.S. decision to shift its military focus to Asia, including some on whether that rebalance has happened at all. With his mandate diminished following his party's losses in congressional elections, analysts say any promise or reassurance the president makes to Asian partners will be met with skepticism.

The visit comes at an awkward time for Obama.

China, with its rapid economic rise and its growing military capabilities in the Pacific, is poised to further challenge the U.S. leader now weakened by elections.

Days before leaving for an Asian economic summit in Beijing, and facing a new Congress dominated by Republicans, Obama told reporters one of his missions in Asia is to boost American exports to create jobs at home.

“We can also work together to grow our exports and open new markets for our manufacturers to sell more American-made goods to the rest of the world. That's something I’ll be focused on when I travel to Asia next week," the president said.

Challenges to Obama agenda

But pushing that agenda with the Chinese will not be easy.

Before he arrived in Beijing, there were signs of the credibility challenge that awaits the U.S. president.

An official Chinese newspaper said in a disparaging manner that his party’s election losses and diminishing mandate are a consequence of Obama's failures. The report also described the president as insipid and banal.

Analysts say that for the president, China – with its expanding military and its maritime claims in the East and South China Seas – represents the biggest security challenge as far as state actors go.

Last year in California, Obama and Chinese leader Xi Jinping agreed they need a new model of relations between the existing power and the one that’s rising.

Tom Donilon, a former national security adviser to Obama, said the two leaders’ upcoming meeting is crucial.

“In my judgment, it’s the most important bilateral meeting the president will have this year," Donilon said.

Polite discussions expected

But former U.S. diplomat Robert Daly expects no more than polite discussions.

“To date, neither side is willing to specify what accommodations it is willing to make. Or in the case of China, what it is specifically that it doesn’t like about the current set of arrangements in the western Pacific," said Daly, who directs the Wilson Center's Kissinger Institute on China and the United States.

"China has never answered what it is that it would like to be able to achieve that it can’t achieve under the current set of arrangements," Daly said.

After China, Obama heads to Myanmar, also known as Burma, where he will meet with Myanmar's leaders and the head of the opposition, Aung San Suu Kyi.

At the East Asia Summit and at a meeting with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, Obama will deal with questions on U.S. commitments to refocus its military forces to Asia.

The trip ends in Brisbane, Australia, where Obama will take part in a G-20 summit. He plans to speak on the United States’ continuing role as a leader in Asia.

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