Washington • On the stump this fall, President Barack Obama boasted that he had “brought more trade cases against China” than his predecessor had. In an ad, he asserted that his challenger “never stood up to China.” During a debate, Obama said he expanded trade with other Asian nations “so that China starts feeling more pressure” to play by the rules.
The contest with Mitt Romney is over, but the contest with China is only gathering steam. After a political campaign spent talking about how tough he was with Beijing, the newly re-elected president departed for Asia on Saturday for his first post-election overseas trip, a whirlwind swing through China’s backyard that is fraught with geopolitical implications.
Obama will make a historic visit to Myanmar to mark the emergence of the long-isolated country and encourage its migration from China’s orbit toward a more democratic future with the West. He will also stop in Thailand, America’s longtime ally in the region as well as a friend of China’s. And he will fly to Cambodia for a summit meeting of a Southeast Asian organization as the United States tries to increase its influence in that part of the region.
With the election over, the White House has softened its language, and presents the trip not as an explicit attempt to contain China but as the next stage of its so-called pivot to Asia, reorienting U.S. foreign policy after a decade of wars in Iraq and Afghanistan toward the economic and political future of the Pacific. On the cusp of a second term, Obama sees such a shift as a mission for the next four years and a possible legacy.
“The president’s trip marks the beginning of the next phase of our rebalancing effort,” Thomas E. Donilon, the president’s national security adviser, said in a speech at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. “When the president says the United States will play a larger and long-term role in the region, we intend to execute on that commitment.”
The political centerpiece of the trip is the scheduled six-hour visit to Myanmar, which is considered strategic in the reorientation to Asia.
In Beijing, where Xi Jinping has just been installed as the new leader in a once-in-a-decade transition, the trip is seen as part of a continuing challenge to China’s rise. The government interprets America’s attention on the region, including the deployment of more troops and battleships, as an effort to encircle China.