Obama feels a special connection to the region
Fears over China's influence are always in the background
Of President Barack Obama’s dozens of foreign swings, perhaps none have brought him to more dissimilar back-to-back stops than his journey this week through China and Laos.
The whiplash of trading Hangzhou’s Gucci-filled malls and glass skyscrapers for the colonial facades of this sleepy riverside capital was yet another reminder of the complexities of Asia that Obama hands off to his successor in January.
At the end of a six-day trip that saw a dispute over airplane stairs escalate into a foreign policy metaphor and an expletive-laden rant from a US ally prompt questions about a key regional partner, the challenge of asserting American influence in Asia seemed in sharper relief than ever.
The pervasive influence of China was nearly omnipresent during Obama’s final Asia tour, from the dust-up over stairs for Air Force One the minute he landed in Hangzhou to the speculation that Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte’s demeaning comments about him reflected a drift toward Beijing.
Even as Obama detailed his own commitment to the region – which he’s visited more regularly as president than his predecessors, and where he’s vowed to return as an ex-president – representatives of Beijing were also in town trying to nurture ties and pull Vientiane into its orbit.
Chinese Premier Li Keqiang was also visiting, heralding billions of investment dollars in Laos as the country works to transform itself from a subsistence agrarian economy. Among the offerings: an $868 million hydropower project on the Nam Ngiep River, a $480 million rail line connecting Yunnan province in China to the Lao capital, and a new special economic zone on the outskirts of Vientiane costing $1.6 billion.
The sums not only dwarfed the US pledge, but they reflected a look toward the future of the country and not its painful past.
Part of the US commitment has been a dutiful recognition of past US wrongs, including acknowledging this week the devastating toll of secret US bombardments during the Vietnam War. On Tuesday, Obama announced a new $90 million US effort to clear unexploded bombs in Laos that are ruining lives and stalling economic development.
Personal ties have largely become the driver for Obama when he’s explaining the importance of his Asia policy, never more so than in Laos this week.
Touring the mountain outpost Luang Prabang, Obama fell easily into conversation with Buddhist monks and coconut saleswomen.
“This part of the world means a lot to me because I lived in Indonesia as a boy,” he later told 200 young leaders from six different Southeast Asian nations gathered for a town hall. “As I drive around here, it’s very familiar to me. It reminds me of my childhood. And my commitment to deepening America’s ties to Southeast Asia is very real.”
While that personal outreach has boosted his popularity in the places he’s visited, it also points to a potential weakness in his pivot strategy: What happens after he leaves.
During Obama’s concluding news conference on Thursday – his final public remarks in Asia as president – he insisted his long-running pivot strategy was working. But he also acknowledged that the next occupant of the White House may abandon it.
“If you look at the remarks of leaders, if you look at the remarks of ordinary people … the concern that I’ve heard is not that what we’ve done hasn’t been important and successful,” Obama said. “The concern that I’ve heard is: Will it continue?”
Implied was that few in Asia can imagine either Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton maintaining the same level of commitment to the region as Obama.
Neither candidate supports the linchpin trade agreement – the Trans-Pacific Partnership – that was meant to be the crowning achievement of the pivot, or “rebalance,” policy. And while Clinton has praised the President’s approach toward the continent, there’s little expectation she would instill the same type of personal stake that Obama has put at the center of his approach here.
But he offered few specific assurances that his successor would approach the continent with nearly as much gusto as he’s attempted during his tenure.
“My hope and expectation is, is that my successor will, in fact, sustain this kind of engagement,” Obama said. “Because there is a lot happening here.”
And he shrugged off suggestions his trip – and by extension, his entire Asia pivot – was somehow marred by the week’s hiccups.
“If this theory about my reception and my rebalance policy is based on me going down the short stairs in China, yes, I think that is overblown,” Obama said. “I think that any reasonable person, certainly any person in the region, would be puzzled as to how this became somehow indicative of the work that we’ve done here.”