President Barack Obama returned from his four-nation Asia trip to Japan, South Korea, Malaysia and the Philippines last week and this week Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs Daniel Russel travels to Vietnam and Hong Kong. It is fully expected that President Obama will return to the region later this fall to attend the APEC forum and East Asia Summit, hosted in China and Myanmar respectively, and the G-20 Summit in Australia this November. To date President Obama has made five trips to Asia since becoming president and he has gone to Seoul more times than any other foreign city. Speaking in Malaysia to an audience of young people from all around Southeast Asia, President Obama explained that “We [the United States] are focused and we’re going to follow through on our interest in promoting a strong US-Asia relationship.”
It will be a busy second-half of 2014 for US diplomats and government officials as they continue their engagement across Asia. US negotiators, led by Ms. Wendy Cutler, Acting Deputy US Trade Representative, are set to resume their Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) negotiations in Vietnam later this month, in preparation for a ministerial meeting scheduled for August in Singapore in which USTR Ambassador Michael Froman will partake. Ambassador Froman was in Japan in late April working with Japanese counterparts on TPP negotiations and in their joint statement President Obama and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe acknowledged that the United States and Japan “have identified a path forward on important bilateral TPP issues. This marks a key milestone in the TPP negotiations and will inject fresh momentum into the broader talks.”
Secretary of Commerce Penny Pritzker announced in April that she will once again return to Asia—her third trip within a year—with stops in Vietnam, the Philippines and Myanmar this June with a delegation of US CEOs. Ms. Pritzker explained the US economic commitment to the Asia-Pacific region, stating: “The United States has made a long-term commitment to the region. No matter what crisis emerges next, re-balancing toward the region will remain a cornerstone of this Administration’s foreign policy.” She further elaborated that economic growth in the region is good for US jobs and US exports as there is a strong and growing demand from Asian consumers for US manufactured goods and services. During President Obama’s visit to Malaysia, trade deals exceeding $2 billion were signed, including an agreement worth $1.5 billion for GE to supply AirAsia X with engines for 28 aircraft.
Later this month, Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel will go to Singapore to partake in the 2014 Shangri-La Dialogue and he is expected to travel to Myanmar later this year for the ASEAN Defense Ministers Meeting-Plus. Last month, he met in Hawai‘i with the ten ASEAN defense ministers for the first US-ASEAN Defense Ministers Forum on US soil. In February Hagel co-authored an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal with Secretary of Commerce Pritzker outlining the reasons for the US focus on Asia, which encompasses across-the-board US government engagement, not limited only to the Departments of Commerce, Defense, and State. Secretary of State John Kerry is scheduled to attend the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) scheduled for June in Myanmar, and US military engagement continues across Asia with Filipino and US forces starting their annual Operation Balikatan exercise on May 5.
Looking ahead, expect no pause in US interactions with the Asia-Pacific region after President Obama’s visit, the United States will continue to pursue a policy of proactive engagement across the region. In a joint press conference with President Benigno Aquino in Manila, President Obama summarized US policy towards Asia thus: “If you look at the results of what we've done over the last five years, it is fair to say that our alliances are stronger, our partnerships are stronger, and in the Asia Pacific region, just to take one example, we are much better positioned to work with the peoples here on a whole range of issues of mutual interest.”
President Obama will welcome Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott to the White House in early June and all indications for the summer and fall of 2014 are that US engagement with Asia will remain both robust and forward looking.