Obama in Asia - building block or bow?

BEIJING Thu Nov 19, 2009 12:35pm EST

President Barack Obama boards Air Force One at Osan Air Base in Seoul, November 19, 2009. REUTERS/Jim Young (SOUTH KOREA POLITICS)

President Barack Obama boards Air Force One at Osan Air Base in Seoul, November 19, 2009.

Credit: Reuters/Jim Young (SOUTH KOREA POLITICS)

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BEIJING (Reuters) - Barack Obama's first presidential trip to Asia was also his first big step in recasting U.S. ties with a region in flux, and showed this will demand patience and compromise from a superpower used to pushing its weight around.

In a tone-setting speech in Tokyo, Obama cast his nine-day Asia odyssey as a return to full U.S. engagement, but his trip covering Japan, a regional summit in Singapore, China and South Korea also became a tutorial in the disputes and shifting forces standing in his way.

Above all, in China the U.S. President found its Communist Party leaders glad for the prestige of his presence but showing little public sign of yielding over currency friction, human rights or putting greater weight behind efforts to bottle in the nuclear ambitions of North Korea and Iran.

All that could be cast as a failure, and already has been by Obama's domestic critics and some commentators.

But U.S. summits with China and the rest of Asia have rarely brought instant rewards and are even less likely to now the U.S. has been wounded by financial crisis and Beijing sees itself as an emerging regional gatekeeper.

Whoever is in the White House, Washington's dealings with Asia in coming years will look less like a clean sprint and more slog through a muddy obstacle course, with plenty of chances to stumble along the way.

"The United States is a big power that became used to having it's way," said Liu Jiangyong, a professor of East Asian security affairs at Tsinghua University in Beijing.

"Just by showing that he'll listen, Obama has won credit that will give the U.S. a boost (in the region)," he said.

"Especially in the next decade, China and the rest of Asia will be going through huge changes, and the United States will have to adjust.

"President Obama's visit was a start, but even if he's happy with it, it showed there's a lot to be done."

EASING REGIONAL ANXIETIES

Obama did not start entirely from scratch in Asia.

While President George W. Bush was preoccupied with wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, he avoided major discord with China and other Asian powers.

Many of Obama's key staff on Asian affairs served in the Clinton administration.

"Especially in the wake of the financial crisis, the United States has faced regional anxieties about its future role in Asia," said Zhu Feng, a professor of international security at Peking University.

"I think Obama saw the need to address those anxieties and show U.S. commitment to its allies and to China."

Obama opened his Asia tour in Japan, a widely welcomed nod to what he said was a relationship at the root of U.S. diplomacy in the region, but he and Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama made no progress on a dispute over the placement of the Futenma U.S. military base in southern Japan.

"If they don't sort out the Futenma problem fairly quickly, it won't mean the end of the U.S.-Japan alliance, but it will be a hurdle preventing them from building a closer relationship," said Fumiaki Kubo, a professor of U.S. studies at Tokyo University.

At the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in Singapore, Obama called for balanced global growth that avoids lurches and distortions that could weigh down economic revival.

In return, some leaders, chief among them Chinese President Hu Jintao, took glancing potshots at the risks of what they see as U.S. trade protectionist tendencies.

On Thursday in Seoul, the final leg of Obama's trip, Obama and South Korean President Lee Myung-bak said they would help North Korea repair its economy and end decades of international isolation, if Pyongyang embraces nuclear disarmament.

But while North Korea may soon host a U.S. envoy, it appears a long way from returning to an initial disarmament deal that it denounced before staging its second ever nuclear test.

In Beijing, Obama openly prodded Hu to raise the value of China's yuan currency, which many in Washington and other capitals say is held so low that Chinese exports enjoy an unfair advantage that is warping broader economic flows.

In return, Hu and then Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao offered silence, not addressing the currency issue in their open comments with Obama. President Hu instead voiced his government's gripes over U.S. trade policy.

Even if the U.S. President won more attention in private, the public silence was a telling sign that for now China feels assertive enough to deflect such pressure when it wants to.

China sees itself as far from challenging U.S. strength across the globe, and Hu did not let economic gripes drown out an otherwise conciliatory message, said Zhu Feng, a professor of international relations at Peking University.

"Each side recognizes that the relationship is changing, but I think each side was serious about trying to make this work," he said. "But a trip like this can only lay the groundwork, not set everything right."

(Additional reporting by Isabel Reynolds in TOKYO; Editing by David Fox)

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