Following his announcement of a U.S. "pivot" toward the Pacific region, President Obama is in Bali, Indonesia, this weekend for the East Asia Summit. His visit marks the first-time the United States has attended the regional meeting.
While few expect anything concrete to emerge from the conference, Obama's symbolic visit could help the country win points—especially over China—with regional players seeking more U.S. attention.
According to Washington Democratic Rep. Rick Larsen, who co-chairs the U.S.-China working group in the House of Representatives, there's a perception in the region that while the United States has not necessarily backed away from its involvement in the region over the past decade, it hasn't paid as much attention as people there would like.
Larsen said that was made clear to him on a trip to Australia and New Zealand earlier this year.
"In Australia, one group of Parliamentarians said, 'We want to see more of you.' That is, Australia wants to see more of the United States in the Pacific," he says.
About two years ago in Japan, President Obama declared himself America's first "Pacific President," a nod to his birthplace in Hawaii and childhood home in Indonesia. Early in his presidency, he also promised U.S. commitment to nations in the Asia Pacific region.
Larsen thinks this trip—and also the recently announced U.S. Marine rotations in Australia—are simply intended to emphasize the president's commitment to the issues of the region, a tactic that could ensure continued U.S. dominance, even despite differences with China and a budget crisis at home.
"What this shows is that, again, the United States is going to spend a lot more time and more of our available resources establishing and reestablishing its contacts, its relationships and its presence in the Asian Pacific," he says. "The dominant powers in that region will be the countries that decide that the best way to address the issues is through a multilateral dialogue, through cooperation and collaboration."
He adds, "The United States is doing that with countries in the region; China is not."
That the United States has even been invited to participate among this once-limited group of nations reflects on the work already done to foster relationships in Asia.
"The United States was barely given the address to the meeting when the summit first started," says Larsen. "But after several years of diplomacy by the Bush administration, and now by the Obama administration, we're attending and will be an active participant."
The territorial dispute over the South China Sea is expected to be one of the most contentious issues discussed in Bali. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton recently suggested that the United States intends to press China on the issue, defending countries like the Philippines, which assert their own claims to the waters.
Larsen says that while he doesn't expect any resolution on the issue by this weekend, the United States will use the summit as a chance to join together with other nations to put pressure on China's grasp over the territory.
"The calculus on the South China Sea is in favor of those that want to address the issues on a multilateral forum and want to negotiate out their differences, as opposed to making broad claims and attempting to force others to accept those claims," he says.