SAN DIEGO — After a decade in which wars in the Middle East have dominated U.S. foreign policy, President Barack Obama began an eight-day trip around the Pacific Rim on Friday to inaugurate what he hopes will be a new era in which engagement with the fast-growing economies of Asia is paramount.
Obama will travel from Hawaii, where he will host one trade summit meeting of Pacific nations, including China, to Bali, Indonesia, for a second meeting, promoting both as steps toward his goal of doubling U.S. exports to create more jobs.
In between, he will make a quick stop in Australia to celebrate the 60th anniversary of the military alliance with the country, which sent troops to Iraq and Afghanistan. He also will announce agreement for a permanent U.S. military presence in Australia, allowing increased naval operations.
The trip comes at a time of conflicting economic and political pressures for the president. While he is eager to avoid any tensions or trade wars with China, Asian allies are eager for the United States to raise its regional profile as a commercial and security counterweight to a rising China.
And at home, Obama is under increasing political pressure to get tougher with China on trade, not only from the usual labor groups and liberals in his own party, but from Republican presidential candidates led by Mitt Romney, the candidate considered Obama's likeliest challenger. In a Republican debate Wednesday, Romney called China a trade "cheater" for keeping its currency undervalued and its products underpriced against U.S. exports.
"This is really an important opportunity for the president to engage in this dynamic region to create American jobs, secure our interests and stand up for democratic values," Benjamin Rhodes, the deputy national security adviser for strategic communications, told reporters this week.
But Obama is constrained by worries about the mounting debt of the United States. Indeed, the president will be absent from Washington while a special congressional committee is struggling to surmount its partisan impasse over spending and taxes to reach a compromise deficit-reduction plan by a Nov. 23 deadline — just four days after Obama returns.
As the Asian allies are well aware, if the committee fails or falls short of its charge to cut deficits by $1.2 trillion over 10 years, in 2013 automatic cuts will take effect, fully half from military programs. So the allies are looking for reassurance that that will not happen and, more broadly, that the focus on deficit reduction will not reduce the military resources — like carrier battle groups — that the United States has available to offset China's growing military muscle in Asia.