Obama's travel plans show China isn't only game in town

  • This artwork by Michael Osbun relates to the geopolitical implications of China taking a more dominant stance in the South China Sea.

President Barack Obama's trip to Myanmar is a gift from the photo-opportunity gods. The sight of the U.S. president standing beside political-prisoner-turned-Nobel-laureate Aung San Suu Kyi in Yangon will be a heart-warming moment for a world yearning for good news.

The most remarkable thing about Obama's first trip abroad since his re-election is his itinerary. During the four-day journey that starts <WC>today<WC1>, Obama will bypass China as well as such staunch Pacific allies as Australia, Japan and South Korea, not to mention Europe and the Middle East. Rather, he will stop in Thailand, Cambodia and Myanmar, formerly known as Burma.

The obvious motivation for the route is to drum up new markets for corporate America with U.S.-led regional trade talks. Less obvious is telling Southeast Asia that for the United States, China isn't the only game in town. It is a show of support not just for Myanmar's opening but for nations that may be future democratic bulwarks in a region awash in authoritarianism.

That is surely how many in China see Obama's journey, and he shouldn't be reluctant to own that message. China's belligerent behavior has unnerved other Asian nations, prompting their leaders to put out a large welcome mat for the U<WC>nited States.<WC1> It is an ideal juncture for the U.S. in a region that is home to most of the world's people, many of its geopolitical trouble spots and some of the most-dynamic economies.<WC>

<WC1>Will Obama, dubbed by some as the first Asian-American president, rise to the occasion? That designation is a wink to Obama's time spent as a child in Indonesia. Attributes that were a disadvantage in his race against Mitt Romney and keep billionaire Donald Trump awake at night play well in Asia.<WC>

<WC1>I'm reminded of some farmers I met in September on the outskirts of Naypyidaw, Myanmar's capital, who longed for the Obama-Suu Kyi moment on Burmese soil.

<WC>"<WC1>We like Obama because we think he understands Asia,<WC>" <WC1>said Yati Moe Myint. <WC>"<WC1>He lived in Asia<WC>,<WC1> and he cares about us. We wish for him to come here to meet our Nobel Prize lady and see how Myanmar is changing so fast.<WC>"<WC1> Well, wish granted.

Obama's Asia pivot has paid dividends. When he took office in 2009, Suu Kyi was locked up, trade negotiations with Malaysia and Thailand were stalled and the U<WC>nited States<WC1> wasn't even showing up to Asian summits. Obama's second term gives him a chance for a reset, offering inspiration and leadership in a region that often boasts even less vision than the aging West.

Asia has all too few strong and creative leaders to articulate its aspirations and where it wants to be in 20 years. It is telling that the most potent words uttered about Asia<WC>'<WC1>s brawl over various insignificant tiny islands came from Japanese novelist Haruki Murakami. He called the nationalism driving Asia apart <WC>"<WC1>cheap liquor<WC>"<WC1>: it gets you drunk, causes you to do and say things you regret and ends in a bad hangover.

This leadership vacuum means Asia's disputes and challenges fester from one generation to the next. It allows a crafty and ambitious power like China to wrap its tentacles around the future. How does one respond to a rising military power that sees hegemony as its due and expects smaller nations to pay it tribute with undying loyalty and access to natural resources while an undervalued yuan hurts them economically?<WC>

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