In his first foreign trip since winning re-election, President Barack Obama has made historic, first-ever stops in Myanmar and Cambodia, as well as visiting Thailand as part of an effort to highlight pro-democracy reforms and America's strategic and economic interests in the Southeast Asia region.
The Obama administration has long sought to shift America's foreign policy attention to Asia, but has been stalled by the ongoing war in Afghanistan, Iraq and the Arab Spring, which swept across northern Africa and the Middle East during the president's first term.
"The United States of America is a Pacific nation and we see our future as bound to those nations and peoples to our West," Obama said Monday in remarks at the University of Yangon in Rangoon, Myanmar, also known as Burma. "And as our economy recovers this is where we believe we will find enormous growth. As we have ended the wars that have dominated our foreign policy for a decade, this region will be a focus for our efforts to build a prosperous peace."
Obama's trip is multi-faceted, meant to strengthen economic and strategic ties in the region, particularly to shipping channel access in the South China Sea, reward and encourage budding Democratic reforms, and highlight the region's overall importance, say foreign policy experts.
"It's really to encourage the transition that's happening there, likely take a little bit of credit, point out to other countries in the region like North Korea, 'Look at all the good things that can happen if you get on the right path and become a responsible country'," says Nina Hachigian, a senior fellow at the Center of American Progress. "Burma was a completely isolated pariah a few years ago and now the American president is coming."
Obama praised the country's new leadership and the pro-democracy efforts they initiated during his speech in Rangoon.
"Over the last year and a half, a dramatic transition has begun, as a dictatorship of five decades has loosened its grip. Under President Thein Sein, the desire for change has been met by an agenda for reform. Hundreds of prisoners of conscience have been released, and forced labor has been banned," he said. "America now has an ambassador in Rangoon, sanctions have been eased, and we will help rebuild an economy that can offer opportunity for its people and serve as an engine of growth for the world."
David Steinberg, an Asian studies professor at Georgetown University, says Myanmar is one of the only foreign policy successes Obama can point to in Southeast Asia, but a vitally important one.
"The opening to Burma has resulted in basically the only Obama administration foreign policy success in East Asia," he says, adding that its location is critical, being between India and China, with access to the Bay of Bengal and the Indian Ocean.
"We are terribly concerned about that. We want to make sure that our sea lanes are protected," Steinberg says.
Obama's trip is capped by a meeting of the East Asia Summit, a group made up of 18 mostly Asian countries, where disputes over the South China Sea will be discussed.
"All these countries have conflicting territorial claims, and there are lots of complaints in the region by smaller countries that China is being overly assertive with the way it's dealing with its own territorial claims," says Hachigian.
"It's another example where an American presence makes a difference, and where we will show solidarity with these other smaller countries and raise the issue of how we can move forward in a peaceful way to come up with a code of conduct with China so that all the countries will have rules that will govern how they act in this region," she says.