WASHINGTON (Reuters) — President Barack Obama, whose foreign policy agenda has been dominated by Middle East upheaval and European debt this year, will try to shift the spotlight to Asia this month to make good on his promise to deepen U.S. ties in the region.
East Asia, with its economic dynamism and challenge from China, has been a priority for Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton from their first days in office. But often their time and media attention have been usurped by conflict in Afghanistan, Libya, Iraq and elsewhere.
U.S. allies such as Japan and South Korea say they worry about American staying power across the Pacific in an era of U.S. economic contraction and declining defense budgets. Obama and his aides insist the United States is not going anywhere.
To reinforce that message, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta recently traveled to Japan, South Korea and Indonesia, Clinton wrote a lengthy essay on Asia policy and Obama made personnel appointments while cautiously engaging two nations from which Washington has long been estranged: Myanmar and North Korea.
The capstone comes on Nov. 12-13 when Obama hosts leaders of 21 Asia-Pacific economies at a summit in his native Hawaii and urges an expansion of trade with the fast-growing region.
Obama hopes to assure leaders at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation gathering in Honolulu that the focus on Asia has not been sidetracked by other diplomatic priorities.
"It's a natural thing to pivot toward Asia," said Michael Green, a former top adviser on Asia to President George W. Bush. "It's clearly where the economic dynamism of the world is shifting. We have historic interests and alliances and presence in the region."
Green, now with the Center for Strategic and International Studies think tank, gave the Obama administration high marks for its efforts to engage Asia and said Clinton has worked particularly hard on it.
Clinton, who made Asia the destination of her first official trip abroad, published an essay in the latest issue of Foreign Policy magazine calling for a "Pacific Century."
She said U.S. foreign policy was at a "pivot point" with the Iraq war winding down and the United States beginning its withdrawal from Afghanistan.
STRENGTHS AND SETBACKS
When he took office in 2009, Obama vowed to make engagement with Asia-Pacific countries a priority and highlighted his personal connections to the region, including his upbringing in Hawaii and the four years he lived in Indonesia as a child.
Obama visited China in 2009 and hosted President Hu Jintao for a state visit to Washington this year. He feted Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh in 2009 in the first state visit of his presidency and traveled to India last year.
"While a lot of the events in the Middle East have garnered headlines, one of the strengths of the Obama Asia policy is that it has continued and continued at many levels, even if it has sometimes continued invisibly," said David Rothkopf, an official in President Bill Clinton's administration and author of a book about the White House National Security Council.
But there have been setbacks.
U.S. critics of Obama accused him of being too deferential to China during his 2009 visit to Beijing. This year's U.S.-China summit in Washington -- where Obama pressed Hu on currency issues and human rights -- went more smoothly.
In 2010, Obama twice had to cancel a planned trip to Indonesia and Australia to tend to domestic issues at home.
Obama ultimately did visit Indonesia at the end of last year. After the APEC meeting, he will travel to Australia for a short visit and then spend two days in Bali attending the East Asia Summit.
More recently, White House National Security Adviser Tom Donilon had to delay a trip to India and China to help Obama deal with Libya and a decision on U.S. troops in Iraq.
Walter Lohman of the Heritage Foundation said he welcomed intensified engagement with Southeast Asia but stressed Washington has long had deep ties across Asia.