Obama’s heavy task

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Obama’s heavy task

U.S. President Barack Obama embarks on his first Asian tour later this week. He will join the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in Singapore and make separate stops in Japan, China and South Korea. The tone of his visit will be different from past customary visits by American presidents as it comes during a transitional period in the region. We see China’s rapid rise to power, the first power transfer in Japan in almost a half-decade and heightened tension on the Korean Peninsula. Washington is expected to define its role and relations with the fast-growing region that has now outgrown its long reliance on American power and is now seeking closer interrelations.

In the face of China’s rise, Washington can no longer expect its past sway in the region. China has found its international status shoulder to shoulder with the U.S. and many now address the two as the “G-2.” The global financial crisis underscored the entwined nature of the two economies. President Obama has to address Beijing as its strategic partner to quench suspicions about their competitive relations.

The U.S.’s new partnership with China would bring about different alliances with its traditional allies - Japan and South Korea. U.S.-Japan relations have entered uncharted waters after Japan’s new Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama called for more equal relations with the United States. He has toned down his rhetoric since inauguration, reiterating that the Japan-U.S. alliance will remain central to Japan’s diplomacy. But nevertheless, he maintains that Japan’s diplomatic focus should move away from the U.S. and toward East Asia.

South Korea’s relations with the U.S. also inevitably face major changes that come from the reconfiguration of the military alliance from regional defense to global security. The change will accelerate once Korea takes back wartime control of its forces from U.S. command in 2012. President Obama will have to pronounce an alliance new and old with Korea and Japan in the new age of joint U.S.-China leadership. Moreover, he must present a viable plan to solve the North Korean nuclear crisis.

China is seeking to replace Washington’s leadership by limiting the regional community to three East Asian countries and the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations. Prime Minister Hatoyama has yet to share his thoughts on the scope of the regional community. Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd separately proposes a broader Asia-Pacific Community that includes the United States. President Obama will have to state clearly whether his country wishes to remain a part of an Asia-Pacific forum and, if so, join actively in the discussions to build the regional community.
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