Obama heads to Asia with 'pivot' plan stymied

Updated: 2015-11-17 07:56

By Agence France-Presse in Manila, The Philippines(China Daily)

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US President Barack Obama arrives in the Philippines on Tuesday with his much-vaunted "pivot to Asia" again overshadowed by events in Europe, the Middle East and politics at home.

Obama will touch down in Manila with the world's focus on the murderous attacks in Paris claimed by the Islamic State group and soul-searching about how to counter it in Syria and Iraq.

The long-planned Asia trip had been designed to underscore the US role as a "Pacific power" and timed to coincide with high-profile regional summits, which Obama has made a point of attending.

"When we're not at the table, we're on the menu," said senior foreign policy aide Ben Rhodes half-jokingly, explaining the administration's policy.

Before the Paris attacks, US national security adviser Susan Rice previewed Obama's trip as an opportunity to herald a vast trans-Pacific trade deal and efforts to promote a "rules-based order" amid tensions in the South China Sea.

But Obama has spent the last few days talking about Syria, Iraq and the Islamic State group, and will likely do so again with Asian leaders.

That focus may actually sit well with some Asian nations, according to Ernest Bower of Washington think tank CSIS.

"Countries such as Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore and Brunei have real and immediate concerns about citizens who have left to fight in Syria and Iraq and will be returning," said Bower.

For his part, Obama may point to majority-Muslim nations in Southeast Asia as examples of how economic development can put a lid on radicalism.

Still, another sidetracked trip to the region is a far cry from early in Obama's term when the Hawaii-born commander-in-chief confidently declared himself "America's first Pacific president".

Throughout his administration, key aides have been frustrated at events in Iraq, Syria, and elsewhere perennially dominating presidential agendas and security briefings.

In their view, populous and fast-growing Asia has, as a result, not always received the attention it deserves.

But events in Europe and the Middle East are not the only things holding back Obama as he arrives in Manila.

The White House faces an uphill battle to pass the Trans-Pacific Partnership free-trade deal - which would spur trade between 12 Pacific rim nations representing 40 percent of the world's economy - through Congress.

Sources on Capitol Hill say the agreement may not be ratified until after US elections in November 2016, or until a new US president has taken office in January 2017.

(China Daily 11/17/2015 page11)