BEIJING — Days after coming to power in September, Japan's new prime minister broached forming a new East Asian trading bloc with rival China — one excluding the United States.
Some in Washington took it as a snub from the nation that has been America's rock in Asia for decades. Even more, Tokyo's new rhetoric underscored how China's rapid rise to power is challenging Washington's once-dominant sway in the region.
This is the reality President Barack Obama confronts as he departs Thursday for his first Asia trip, perhaps his most challenging overseas journey yet. He'll find a region outgrowing a half-century of U.S. supremacy and questioning America's relevance to its future. More so than Obama's previous foreign trips, this nine-day, four-country tour has the president on something like a salvage mission.
While popular in some parts of the region, Obama does not have the rock-star appeal in Asia that he has in Europe and elsewhere. He will have to overcome strong suspicions among Asian leaders that he is more concerned about domestic battles over health care and the economy than the freer trade that is so crucial to Asian nations and U.S. businesses.
Chief among Obama's goals will be to make "vividly clear to the peoples of Asia that the U.S. is here to stay in Asia," Jeffrey Bader, Obama's top Asia adviser, said Friday. "As Asia continues to grow and as new groupings and structures take shape, the U.S. will be a player and participant on the ground floor, not a distant spectator."
In Japan, where Obama and his election inspired the public, it looks like the president will have his most difficult stop.
Prime Minister Hatoyama won election on an Obama-like message of change. But he's begun rethinking the U.S.-Japan alliance in which Tokyo has often felt itself the junior partner. He proposed the East Asian community that initially excluded the United States, though he has since sidestepped the issue.
His government plans to end Japan's Indian Ocean refueling mission that supports U.S.-led forces in Afghanistan. His review of the agreement on basing 47,000 U.S. troops in Japan has caused particular tension, chiefly over relocating Futenma Marine air field on Okinawa. The U.S. has agreed to a more remote location on the island while Hatoyama has suggested moving the forces off the island. U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates last month demanded Tokyo not delay resolving the issue until next year, as Hatoyama has hinted.
In China, sizable distrust over trade tensions, Tibet and other human rights issues and Beijing's robust military buildup are likely to be papered over.
The Obama administration has tried to set a more constructive, cooperative tone for relations, calling Beijing a needed partner in tackling global issues like the economic downturn and climate change. The governments have identified clean energy as ripe for cooperation.