Obama Trip To Focus On Relations With Asia

President Obama is about to leave on a week's visit to 4 Asian countries. It's the latest effort to refocus U.S. foreign policy on Asia. Like earlier efforts, it's struggling to ward off distractions.

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And I'm Renee Montagne.

President Obama sets off for Asia this week. He'll be visiting four countries - Japan, South Korea, Malaysia and the Philippines. The trip is part of the president's long-term strategy to refocus America's attention towards Asia, something that's proving a little bit hard to do.

NPR's Scott Horsley joins us now to talk about the trip. Good morning.

SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: Good morning.

MONTAGNE: Now, Scott, the Obama administration promised back in 2011 that this would be - and this was their language - America's Pacific Century. Also that Asia would cease to be an afterthought in U.S. policy. But it seems like every time the president tries to deliver on that promise he runs into roadblocks. What's happening?

HORSLEY: Right. The Senate Foreign Relations Committee put out a report last week that called this attempt at rebalancing toward Asia one of the administration's most farsighted foreign policy initiatives. The idea was that after many years of being bogged down in places like Iraq and Afghanistan, the U.S. would finally turn its attention to that part of the globe that's home to so much of the world's population, and also so much of the economic vitality.

National Security Adviser Susan Rice said last week that during the next five years, nearly half economic growth outside the United States will take place in Asia. But here's the thing. As Susan Rice was briefing reporters on this trip, she kept getting asked about things like Ukraine. The Middle East continues to hog a lot of U.S. bandwidth. And there are domestic distractions, as well. Last fall, the president was forced to cancel trips to two Asian summits because of the government shutdown.

So there has been some progress. The Foreign Relations Committee notes the Pentagon is on target to base 60 percent of its land and sea assets in the Pacific by 2020. But diplomatic and economic rebalancing has lagged. And the big trade deal that was really the centerpiece of this effort is stalled.

MONTAGNE: And, Scott, that would be the Transpacific Partnership is a big trade deal, giant free-trade deal. Two of the countries Obama is visiting, Japan and Malaysia, would be part of that, right?

HORSLEY: That's right, along with a dozen countries altogether. And this kind of deal the president would really love to finalize on a trip like this. That would be sort of cherry on top. Susan Rice points to forecast of the agreement would boost U.S. exports by more than $120 billion a year. But there seems to be very little prospect of actually getting a deal signed during this trip. After several weeks of what he called difficult negotiations with the Japanese, U.S. Trade Representative Mike Froman said last Friday there are still outstanding issues left to settle.

And maybe a bigger problem for the administration, even if they could get a deal at the bargaining table, it's far from clear that you get it through Congress, where trade pacts face a real skeptical audience especially among the president's fellow Democrats.

MONTAGNE: Well, one interesting thing about this trip, China is not on the president's itinerary. What's going on there?

HORSLEY: China is not on the itinerary but it's casting a big shadow over the visit. It's very much on the president's mind, as well as the mind of the leaders he'll be meeting with. One of the guiding motivations of the rebalancing was for the U.S. to serve as sort of a counterweight to China. But at the same time, the U.S. insists it's not trying to somehow contain China or limit its growth.

This has been especially challenging right now at a time when China and its neighbors have been throwing some sharp elbows at one another over disputed territory in places like the East and South China Sea.

MONTAGNE: And, you know, Scott, it's also a region that has seen its share of tragic news in recent weeks.

HORSLEY: Yes. And that's both a challenge and an opportunity for the president. Susan Rice pointed that when the U.S. offers help, for example, to South Korea after something like the ferry disaster, it's a chance to show that the U.S. will play a role in the region.

By the way, the president is going to be making a stop on his way to Tokyo tomorrow to pay respects to victims of a domestic disaster. He'll be visiting Oso, Washington and will meet with some of the people affected by that terrible mudslide.

MONTAGNE: NPR's Scott Horsley, thanks very much.

HORSLEY: My pleasure.

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