Obama to go on bonding visit to Asia

By Anne Penketh

First President to visit Burma and Cambodia will discuss increased trade and partnerships.

President Barack Obama with daughters Sasha, second from right, Malia, left, and first lady Michelle Obama. Photo / AP
President Barack Obama with daughters Sasha, second from right, Malia, left, and first lady Michelle Obama. Photo / AP

President Barack Obama is to make a historic trip to Burma in a show of support for political reforms as part of an Asian tour underscoring the Administration's "Asia pivot" aimed at countering China's regional expansion.

Obama's spokesman, Jay Carney, said yesterday that the President would be discussing issues including "economic prosperity and job creation through increased trade and partnerships", during his visits to Burma, Thailand and Cambodia from November 17 to 20.

No American President has visited Burma or Cambodia, while Thailand is a solid United States ally which will seek reassurance about America's continued engagement in regional affairs as an Asia-Pacific power.

The high spot of the trip will be Obama's maiden visit to Burma, prepared by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who bonded with opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi last December when she became the first US Secretary of State to visit Rangoon in 56 years. Suu Kyi, who spent 15 years under house arrest, was welcomed to Washington in September where she received Congress' highest honour for her peaceful struggle for democracy, and held private talks with Obama at the White House.

Carney said Obama would meet President Thein Sein, who has taken steps towards ending Burma's isolation through economic and political reforms, and with the Nobel peace prize laureate. But he would also "speak to civil society to encourage Burma's ongoing democratic transition".

The unspoken aim of the visit, though, will be to attempt to drive a wedge between Burma and its erstwhile diplomatic and military ally, China.

The Obama visit, lasting only a few hours, has already been criticised by human rights activists who say that Burma remains a repressive society and that Washington should not rush to normalise relations.

The President would also discuss energy and security co-operation, human rights and other issues of regional and global concern during his swing through the region, Carney said. Obama will attend the East Asia summit in the Cambodian capital and the annual meeting of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean).

Outgoing Chinese Prime Minister Wen Jiabao and President Vladimir Putin of Russia will also be at the summit.

Their presence will ensure that the three leaders have the opportunity of discussing prospects of a deal with Iran over its nuclear programme.

Russia and China are part of the so-called 5+1 negotiations between the big powers and Iran aimed at curbing Iran's suspected nuclear weapons programme.

Obama's re-election is seen by the Iranians as a "positive development", said Iranian scholar Emad Kiyaei, who also noted that "the taboo of dealing directly with the Americans has been removed".

But the window of opportunity for reaching a deal will close next March, he said, as Iran prepares for a presidential election in June.

During the presidential campaign, Obama said he wanted to bring jobs back to America by increasing trade. The Administration has, meanwhile, been rebalancing its strategic posture in Asia to counter the growing threat from China.

In June, Defence Secretary Leon Panetta told the region that by 2020, the US Navy would have repostured its forces from today's 50-50 per cent split between the Pacific and Atlantic to about a 60-40 split.

How to deal with China was one of the burning topics of the presidential debates during the election campaign.

Mitt Romney, the unsuccessful Republican candidate, pledged to declare China a "currency manipulator" on day one of his presidency, if elected. However, Obama has preferred to take trade disputes with China to the World Trade Organisation.

With the Chinese Communist Party Congress under way at the moment in Beijing, Obama is also likely to seek indications from Wen about China's future path.

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