WASHINGTON (Reuters) - President Barack Obama will try to put election woes behind him on Friday as he departs for a tour of Asia to push for exports and U.S. jobs -- domestic priorities likely to decide the fate of his presidency.
Smarting from Democratic congressional losses viewed as a referendum on his first two years in office, Obama embarks on a 10-day trip that will blend G20 diplomacy with assurances to Asian allies worried by an increasingly assertive China.
Rebuffed domestically by the loss of control of the House of Representatives, Obama can count on a warm reception in Asia where leaders want American power to counter Beijing.
“The countries in the region all welcome the U.S. presence as, if you will, kind of a balance as China emerges,” top White House Asian expert Jeff Bader said on Tuesday.
Aides says Obama will raise the issue of China’s yuan currency when he meets his Chinese counterpart during the trip, as well as discussing North Korea’s nuclear weapons and raising the thorny issue of Chinese human rights.
Tensions have flared over territorial disputes and Chinese interference in its export of rare earth minerals. U.S. official also say Beijing keeps the yuan’s value low against the dollar to aid exports at the expense of U.S. jobs.
The longest foreign tour of Obama’s presidency so far starts in India, then returns him to Indonesia where he spent part of his childhood, moves to a Group of 20 summit in South Korea, and ends with an Asian-Pacific economic forum in Japan.
“Asia is critical to our foreign policy strategy. It’s the fastest-growing market in the world. It’s fundamental to our export initiative,” White House deputy national security adviser Ben Rhodes told reporters.
Obama wants to double U.S. exports in 5 years and the administration is working to remove obstacles to a long-stalled U.S.-South Korean free trade agreement in time for Obama’s meeting with South Korean President Lee Myung-bak in Seoul.
Failure would send a negative signal about U.S. openness to more trade, after an election campaign marked by protectionist rhetoric over China and outsourcing hubs like India.
The G20 will be dominated by concern over the yuan and efforts to agree a framework to ease global economic imbalances.
But the White House played down hopes for much progress on the yuan and said Obama would focus on cooperation, in order to ease risks of competitive currency devaluations.
White House aides stress the symbolism of his tour to the four Asian countries while denying this was about isolating China, although analysts said Washington’s message was clear.
“It’s classic balance of power politics,” said Douglas Paal at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “With a rising China we need strong friends of our own.”
Tension with China offers an opportunity for Obama to re-engage in a region that felt neglected while the United States was distracted by wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
But he must also answer questions about the resilience of the U.S. recovery and the dollar.
“A lot of Asian countries are looking for heightened American engagement, so he is going at a moment of real opportunity for the United States,” said Evan Feigenbaum, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.
“But there is a broad concern in a lot of these countries about America’s own economic trajectory, whether and how the United States will manage its debt,” he said. “So the president ... will be challenged to assure Asian leaders.”
U.S. growth remains tepid and some worry Obama would not oppose a weaker dollar to boost exports.
The president will spend 3-1/2 days in India during a state visit, the longest time he has spent in any foreign country since becoming president, which the White House says underlines the importance of the U.S.-Indian relationship.
Critics say Obama has not paid as much attention to India as his predecessor, Republican George W Bush, who forged a civil nuclear pact that promised to clear the way for U.S. investment in India that has been slow to come.
Obama will address a conference of business leaders in Mumbai, and aides hope several commercial deals will be signed during the trip.
The next stop is Indonesia, where the president stays one night, fulfilling a twice-postponed trip.
He will visit the country’s largest mosque and also address an open air audience in Jakarta in a speech billed as a follow-up to his Cairo address to Muslims last year.
First lady Michelle will accompany him to India and Indonesia, but daughters Sasha and Malia will stay home.
After Seoul, Obama’s final stop is Japan for a meeting of the Asian-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum. He will also hold bilateral meetings with his Russian and Australian counterparts, and Japanese Prime Minister Naoto Kan.
Editing by Deborah Charles and Mohammad Zargham