President Obama looking back before departing on Air Force One for his four country Asia trip

President Obama looking back before departing on Air Force One for his four country Asia trip Cliff Owen/AP

Obama Heads to Asia as Ukraine Crisis Looms

President Obama is visiting Asia this week against a backdrop of Russian provocations in Ukraine. By George E. Condon, Jr.

President Obama never seems to get Asia trips to go the way they are planned.

As he begins an ambitious weeklong visit to four Asian countries, the White House is hoping this one sticks to the agenda, which includes economic, trade, and security measures to demonstrate that his much-talked-about "pivot" to the Pacific is paying off. But the administration knows that regional tensions and instability in Ukraine are certain to force their way into the talks he will hold with other leaders—and just may steal the spotlight.

Before flying to Japan, the president on Tuesday will stop in Oso, Wash., the town about 50 miles northeast of Seattle where 41 were killed and two dozen homes were destroyed in a devastating mudslide March 22. From there, he will go to Tokyo, then to South Korea on Friday, Malaysia on Saturday, and the Philippines on Monday.

Second only to ending the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the pivot to Asia has been one of the signal foreign policy changes Obama has implemented as president. But his efforts to personally champion that policy overseas have often been stymied.

In 2009, Chinese officials hijacked an Obama town-hall meeting in Shanghai, packing it with communist supporters. In 2010, two planned trips to Indonesia were canceled because of the health care debate and the Gulf oil spill. When he did make it to Indonesia that year, he had to cut the trip short because volcanic ash threatened to ground Air Force One. Then, last October, the president had to cancel plans to attend two regional summits because of the government shutdown at home.

At the time, the cancellation raised questions about the depth of the Obama's commitment to the region that is leading the world in economic growth. It also offered an opening for China to fill in regional leadership.

This week, Obama gets to try again. But this trip takes place against a backdrop of Russian provocations in Ukraine that have raised questions about the U.S. resolve to come to the aid of threatened allies. That, said Michael J. Green at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, is "the bad news for the president." Green, who was director for Asian Affairs at the National Security Council for much of George W. Bush's presidency, said there "are questions in the region ... particularly among allies, about American staying power and the credibility of American commitments."

Green said Ukraine has exacerbated the situation, but the questions first were raised after the president failed to respond forcefully to Syria's use of chemical weapons. Obama's response to Syria, he said, "really rattled" Asian leaders dealing with Obama.

But Jeffrey A. Bader, who was senior director for East Asian Affairs on the NSC in Obama's first term, believes the fears about U.S. credibility will prove unfounded on the trip, calling it "fundamentally false" that Japan or other U.S. allies "are nervous about the U.S. reaction to Ukraine." Bader said the president will find Asian leaders even more welcoming of a robust American security presence in Asia because of Ukraine.

Indeed, the word most heard describing Obama's mission on the trip is "reassurance"—reassurance that the United States will honor its treaty obligations in the Pacific, reassurance that the president is serious about pushing a major trade deal through a balky Congress, reassurance that the pivot to Asia is more than rhetorical, and reassurance that American policy toward China is properly balanced. National Security Adviser Susan Rice called the trip "an important opportunity to underscore our continued focus on the Asia-Pacific region."

Meeting with reporters at the White House, Rice stressed the reasons for the pivot, noting that "over the next five years, nearly half of all growth outside the United States is expected to come from Asia." She said Obama sees "a significant demand for U.S. leadership in that region."

But Rice also acknowledged that Ukraine will have an impact on the agenda. "The countries of the region clearly are watching this carefully and are cognizant of the implications for the larger international order," she said.

As always, the growth and influence of China hovers over the trip, even though the president will not be stopping there. Kenneth G. Lieberthal, senior director for Asia on Bill Clinton's NSC, said that "a major underlying issue throughout the trip" will be "whether the president can strike the right balance between providing confidence that the U.S. will meet its security commitment without being drawn into language and promises that will tilt toward making China the bulls-eye." That will require some diplomatic finesse when the other leaders bring up their disputes with China over islands and territorial borders in both the South China Sea and the East China Sea. And it will require the president to carefully defend his pivot without it coming across to Beijing as a strategy to "contain" China.

Another challenge for the president is finding a way to achieve progress on the 12-country Trans-Pacific Partnership trade talks, which are currently stalled. Talks in Tokyo resume Tuesday in a last-minute effort to break a stalemate over market access. Washington is pressing hard for the slashing of Japanese tariffs that effectively keep American beef and pork out of the Japanese market and Tokyo is pushing for easier access to the American market for Japanese autos.

"Betting is against any breakthrough," Green warned, in part because the Asian leaders are well aware that the president is unable to deliver his own party in Congress to support a trade deal, even if it is achieved. "The Japanese side argues that the president's not willing to make the case for trade promotion authority or fast track, so why should Japan take a hit and do all of the hard politics?"