Obama gets set for 4-country Asian tour

United States President Barack Obama heads off on a much anticipated tour of four countries in Asia this week, looking to bolster key alliances at a time of increased geopolitical tensions worldwide.

Trade will also be high on the agenda as he tries to shore up support for the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) free trade agreement that the US has said it intends to conclude this year.

White House administration officials unveiled details of the visits to Japan, South Korea, Malaysia and the Philippines in a press briefing yesterday. The trip begins in Tokyo on Wednesday and ends when he leaves Manila six days later.

The Malaysian leg of the visit takes on added historical significance as Mr Obama will be the first US president to visit the country since president Lyndon Johnson in 1966.

Discussions about the US returning its focus to Asia and China's increased assertiveness in territorial disputes are expected to feature at every stop on the tour. Each of the four countries has had its own disputes with Beijing in recent years.

Since President Obama cancelled his planned trip to the Philippines and Malaysia last year due to a stand-off in Congress over the government's budget, there has been an increasing sense that the White House's Asia pivot may remain an unfinished project.

In particular, observers in Asia question if the White House can keep its attention on the region given the turmoil in eastern Europe triggered by Russia's annexation of Crimea.

National Security Adviser Susan Rice emphasised that the US' Asia strategy will be evident on the President's visit.

"Unlike many of the President's overseas trips, particularly to Asia, there are no large summits involved, so the agenda in each country can focus intensively on energising our bilateral relationships and advancing the different elements of our Asia strategy," she said.

She added that Mr Obama will also be looking to continue to make progress on the TPP, of which Japan and Malaysia are party to. It remains unclear if the President will have any major breakthrough to celebrate on the trip. US and Japanese negotiators were said to have doubled their meetings ahead of the trip in a last-minute effort to get an agreement on some of the stumbling blocks, like agriculture tariffs.

In each country, Mr Obama will meet with the heads of state: Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in Japan, President Park Geun Hye in South Korea, Prime Minister Najib Razak in Malaysia and President Benigno Aquino in the Philippines.

In Japan, Emperor Akihito will host a dinner for him.

Asked if Mr Obama would meet with opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim in Malaysia, Ms Rice said he would not. "I think that the President is not likely to have that meeting - there may be other engagements at other levels."


This article was published on April 20 in The Straits Times.

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