By Merle Kellerhals Jr
IIP Staff Writer
19 November 2011
A significant goal of President Obama’s nine-day trip from Hawaii to Australia and then to Indonesia was to reinforce America’s deepening commitment to the Asia-Pacific region and its emerging institutions.
Obama opened the trip with the 21-member Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation Leaders’ Meeting in Honolulu, which was hosted by the United States for the first time in 18 years. The president then made a stop in Australia for consultations in Canberra and Darwin with Australian leaders and to address the Australian Parliament before concluding the trip in Bali, Indonesia, to attend the Association of Southeast Asian Nations’ (ASEAN) Summit and the East Asia Summit (EAS). It marked the first time a U.S. president has attended the East Asia Summit.
The president also held numerous individual meetings with national leaders on the sidelines of the larger conferences.
“The president has made clear that full and active U.S. engagement in the region’s multilateral architecture helps to reinforce the system of rules, responsibilities, and norms that underlie regional peace, stability and prosperity,” the White House said in an East Asia Summit fact sheet summarizing why the United States is seeking strengthened engagement.
National Security Advisor Thomas Donilon told reporters during a briefing in Bali November 19 that the trip was “the implementation of a substantial and important reorientation in American global strategy.”
“Alliances are an essential strategic asset for the United States around the world,” Donilon told reporters. “Over the last two weeks, the president has met face-to-face with each of our Asia treaty allies, and engaged in really the continuing work to strengthen those alliances.”
No other nation in the world has the alliance system that the United States has developed, and it is regarded as a strategic asset, Donilon said.
A second goal of this trip, he said, was for the president to engage intensively with the emerging power centers in the region — such as China, India and Indonesia — which is why it was crucial for the president to hold individual talks with leaders at every opportunity throughout the trip.
Another aspect of the U.S. strategy in the Pacific Rim is to participate actively in regional multilateral institutions, such as Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum, ASEAN and the East Asia Summit, Donilon said. The decision to participate in the East Asia Summit was made after considerable debate within the White House, and was based on the belief that by engaging, the United States could help shape the agenda and help transform the EAS into the premier institution in Asia for addressing diplomatic security and other issues, he added.
Donilon said trade and the economy also were discussed. The United States announced a series of commercial transactions in Indonesia; worked on the U.S.-South Korea Free Trade Agreement and World Trade Organization accession for Russia; participated in APEC trade and economic talks; discussed the work being done for a free-trade based Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP); and joined in the announcement that a number of countries want to join the TPP, he added.
During a November 19 briefing aboard Air Force One returning to Washington, a senior administration official said the discussions during the East Asia Summit focused on disaster relief and some of the initiatives that have been taken by member countries, including a U.S. proposal for a disaster relief mechanism that would allow for quick response through pre-approved access agreements in advance of emergencies. Such a plan would hasten relief efforts and bring supplies and relief teams faster to enhance recovery and rescue. The ASEAN leaders also discussed economic integration, a recurring theme in all of the leaders’ meetings, in addition to free trade, education assistance programs and disaster relief, the official said.
The senior White House official said that “the bulk of the discussions were a very robust conversation on maritime security and the South China Sea.” A number of nations in the immediate region have made claims on all or part of the South China Sea, which may hold as-yet-untapped rich deposits of oil and natural gas. The official said at least 16 of the 18 leaders attending the EAS meeting addressed maritime security in varying levels.
The Asia-Pacific region is home to some of the world’s busiest ports and most critical lines of commerce and communication, the White House fact sheet said. “Recent decades of broad regional economic success have been underpinned by a shared commitment to freedom of navigation and international law,” the White House said.
The president explained the principles-based U.S. approach to maritime security, including freedom of navigation and overflight by commercial airplanes, the lawful uses of the sea lanes and a collaborative diplomatic process to address disputes, the fact sheet said.