WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama will leave Friday on a nine-day trip to Hawaii, Australia and Indonesia, underscoring the region's rising profile but leaving town at a politically inconvenient time as he accuses Congress of not doing enough to goose the slumping economy.
White House officials defended the trip Wednesday as vital to U.S. economic and security interests, arguing that Asia and the Pacific comprise the "fastest-growing economic region in the world."
"When the American people see the president traveling in Asia-Pacific, they will see him advocating for U.S. jobs and U.S. businesses," Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes said. "He will be trying to open new markets. He will be trying to achieve new export initiatives.
"When you ask why we are so focused on this region, an overwhelming reason why is because of the economic potential and direct tie into people at home."
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Analysts say the trip to the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in Hawaii, along with the stops in Australia and Indonesia, underscores the key role that the new global financial powerhouse is playing and the U.S. interest in staying engaged in the region as China's influence expands and U.S. finances are limited.
The trip comes as Secretary of State Hillary Clinton — who made Asia her first official overseas destination in 2009 — has signaled a new phase for U.S. policy. She wrote recently in Foreign Policy magazine that "one of the most important tasks of American statecraft over the next decade will ... be to lock in a substantially increased investment — diplomatic, economic, strategic and otherwise — in the Asia-Pacific region."
However, with a stubbornly high 9 percent U.S. unemployment rate and congressional negotiators struggling to deliver by Nov. 23 a plan to cut the federal budget deficit over the next 10 years, there's likely to be grumbling that Obama should be at home, focusing on domestic priorities.
"There is pressure here not to do the trip," said Ernie Bower, who chairs the southeast Asia program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a center-right research center, citing the political maxim that "it's always better to be in Indiana than Indonesia. That sort of thread is out there."
But Bower said he expected that "in the end" the president would keep to his schedule, noting that not showing up at the last scheduled stop — in Bali, Indonesia, for the East Asia Summit — "would be a real mistake.
"It would underlie a narrative that the Chinese have promoted, in some sense, that the Americans are interested in Asia, but they're not consistently engaged."
White House officials said the president was able to stay in touch with the White House when he was abroad and that the trip was aimed at ensuring that the U.S. "remains the pre-eminent economic and security power in the Asia-Pacific."
"Increasingly the center of gravity in the 21st century is going to make Asia-Pacific critical to all of our interests," Rhodes said. "If you want America to be a world leader in this century, that leadership is going to have to include the Asia-Pacific.''
Obama's first stop will be at APEC in Hawaii, where he'll meet with the leaders of the 21 economies that purchased 61 percent of total U.S. exports last year, Rhodes said.
Michael Green, the Japan chair and senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said the president was likely to tout the recent U.S.-Korea trade agreement as proof that the U.S. has "created conditions for American exports."
He's unlikely, however, to add that it and two other recently ratified trade deals were "negotiated by the Bush administration and that the Obama administration took several years to actually move them forward," Green noted.
Obama also will meet with Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda of Japan, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev and Chinese leader Hu Jintao.
The issue of China's currency is likely to be raised in the meeting, Rhodes said, noting that the U.S. doesn't think that the steps China has taken to raise the value of its currency, the yuan, "are sufficient."
He said that Obama would raise with Hu "the broader need for global growth that is supported by demand in China and other emerging economies. Currency is a part of that picture."
After APEC — and a fundraiser for his re-election campaign — the president will pay his first visit to Australia, a trip that's been delayed twice. After meetings with Prime Minister Julia Gillard and an address to Parliament, he'll travel to an Australian military base in Darwin, where he and Gillard are expected to announce an expanded U.S. military presence in the country.
Rhodes declined to say whether the U.S. would announce a basing agreement with Australia, but he said the two leaders would discuss "the future bilateral cooperation between the U.S. and Australian militaries, and also the U.S. force posture in the Asia-Pacific region more generally."
Bower said an enhanced U.S. security presence in the form of a military base in the region was "very much welcomed to balance what's perceived as some recent Chinese aggression."
After two days in Australia, Obama will fly to Bali, where he'll be the first U.S. president to participate in an East Asia Summit. Bower said he expected the conversation to include the South China Sea, where neighboring countries have had conflicts over territorial and fishing claims. China, though, he said, will oppose setting any rules governing the South China Sea.
Rhodes noted that the U.S. has a "deep security and commercial interest in seeing that there (are) clear rules of the road in terms of how nations approach maritime security."
With the deadline for the congressional "supercommittee" approaching, Green said, he expects its deliberations to be "hanging over this whole trip" as the region tries to determine what cuts might be made in the U.S. posture in Asia.
"Will the U.S. defense budget allow us to have 10 carrier battle groups or seven?" Green said. "Everybody will be watching back here what's happening with the supercommittee at the same time they're talking to the president in the region."
Rhodes said Obama would make it clear that the U.S. would continue to play a security role in the region "even in a time of addressing fiscal consolidation and deficit reduction here at home."
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