Obama to reiterate focus on region with Asia tour

THE Obama administration's Asian agenda comes into focus this week with the release of details of the President's Asia tour coinciding with the start of Secretary of State John Kerry's own four-nation trip through the region.

For President Barack Obama's April visit to Japan, South Korea, Malaysia and the Philippines, a key objective will likely be to convince his Asian allies that he will not neglect the region even as he deals with critical mid-term elections back home.

"Political advisers think the words 'foreign policy', 'trade' and 'Asia' are not vote winners and can even divide the Democratic base ahead of mid-term elections," said Mr Ernie Bower, senior adviser for South-east Asia Studies at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. "The national security team knows it needs to send a strong signal to Asia... they need to focus on trade and Asia and they need to do that now, not after November."

And while the White House announced yesterday that Mr Obama would focus on trade and security issues during his visit, it is clear that tensions between Korea and Japan, as well as China's assertiveness in the South China Sea will feature prominently.

Ties between Seoul and Tokyo are at its lowest ebb for years and Mr Kerry yesterday urged both countries to improve their deeply strained relations and try and "put history behind them", saying it was "critical" to maintain "robust trilateral cooperation".

The strained ties already appear to have added a little drama to the White House travel planning. It had been initially expected that Mr Obama would visit Malaysia, the Philippines and Japan while skipping Seoul, but an invitation from the Korean foreign minister last month and a recognition of the delicacy of the situation in the Korean peninsula appear to have swayed the White House's decision.

And questions still remain about the amount of time Mr Obama will spend at each stop.

On a visit to Washington last week, Japanese Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida said Tokyo wanted to invite Mr Obama as a state guest. Nikkei News reported that he will arrive in Japan on April 22 for a two-day visit before heading to Seoul. Tokyo had initially asked for a three-day stay to facilitate the pomp required of a state visit, but has left open the possibility of still granting it that status.

The South China Sea issue will take prominence during the President's Manila stop where he will likely follow the line that officials laid out last week - stressing the US position that land features are the only legal basis for territorial claims. He is also likely, said Mr Bower, to expand the military access agreement with Philippine President Benigno Aquino.

Overall, there is less controversy surrounding the stops in Kuala Lumpur and Manila. Mr Obama was scheduled to visit both places last year before a government shutdown forced him to abort the trip.

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