WASHINGTON (AP) — His influence at home fading, President Barack Obama is looking abroad to China, the opening stop of a three-country trip that will test his ability to play a commanding global role during his final two years in office as reported.
Once Obama was treated like a superstar on the world stage. But the president will arrive in Beijing on Monday under far different conditions, with his most powerful days behind him.
At home, Republicans are still rejoicing at having pummeled Obama’s party in the midterm elections, relegating Democrats to the minority in both chambers of Congress. His counterparts in Asia surely have noticed.
The trip also marks one of Obama’s final chances to deliver on his goal to amplify America’s influence in Asia and the Pacific. In China, Myanmar and Australia, leaders may render a judgment on whether Obama’s lofty ambitions in the region have been sidetracked by crises in Eastern Europe, Africa and the Middle East.
“This is going to be a tough trip for the president,” said Ernest Bower, an Asia expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. He said Asian leaders were viewing Obama’s visit with this question in mind: Who is the president after the midterm elections?
“They’ll be trying to discern whether he has the commitment and political capital to follow through,” Bower said.
Even before the election, Obama’s commitment to the region and his ability to boost U.S. clout there was in doubt in many capitals. U.S. allies such as Japan and South Korea have pressed for a greater American presence, partly to counter China’s growing influence. Yet Obama’s mission against the Islamic State group and his government’s Ebola response have diverted U.S. military and financial resources elsewhere.
“The president remains deeply committed to his Asia rebalancing strategy, and its implementation will remain a top priority throughout the second term,” said his national security adviser, Susan Rice.
During his three days in China, Obama planned to give a speech about U.S. ties to Asia at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit and meet with President Xi Jinping.
U.S. presidents often immerse themselves in foreign affairs during their last years in office, when the focus on the next presidential race saps the energy from their domestic efforts. After last week’s elections, White House officials spoke optimistically about Obama’s prospects for clinching trade deals in Asia and elsewhere now that Republicans are set to control Congress.
Under Obama, U.S. trade negotiators for years have been pursuing the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a major trade pact being negotiated with 11 nations. The talks repeatedly have blown past their deadlines, and other nations have been wary about Obama’s ability to push a deal through Congress, where Democrats are sensitive to the concerns of labor unions.
But with Republicans in charge, Obama’s prospects may have increased — so the argument goes. Republicans tend to support trade deals as a way to boost the U.S. economy, and GOP leaders have spoken positively about giving Obama the power to submit a final deal to an up-or-down vote, preventing last-minute amendments that could sink it.
China is not part of the talks, and is pursuing its own free trade deals in the region. What’s more, Chinese leaders have viewed Obama’s focus on Asia with suspicion, fearing an attempt to contain China’s growth and influence in the region.
In a sign of the political climate facing Obama in China, state-run media have been mocking him in the days before his visit.
“Obama always utters ‘Yes, we can,’ which led to the high expectations people had for him,” read an editorial in the English-language Global Times. “But he has done an insipid job, offering nearly nothing to his supporters. U.S. society has grown tired of his banality.”
Another reminder of the tensions in the region came hours before Obama left on Saturday when North Korea released two American detainees after Obama’s spy chief made a secret mission to Pyongyang to secure their release.
In his meetings with Xi, Obama plans to address human rights issues, officials said, including the treatment of journalists as well as pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong. Climate change, a big concern in smog-filled Beijing, and China’s aggressive behavior toward its neighbors are also on Obama’s agenda.
Douglas Paal, who headed Asia policy under President George W. Bush at the National Security Council, said Chinese leaders have signaled that this visit will determine whether to keep working with Obama or just wait him out.
“If he comes in and tries to be tough with them, they’ll see that as putting a period on cooperation with Obama,” said Paal. He added, “They see Hillary Clinton coming.”