WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama is to board Air Force One today for a trip to Asia, his first visit to the region since he took office. Obama will stop first in Tokyo, where he will deliver a major speech on his Pacific Rim policy and also meet with Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama. Other countries on the itinerary are China, Singapore and South Korea.
Obama will use the weeklong trip to strengthen ties to Asian leaders and send a strong message that the United States is "an Asia-Pacific nation and we are there for the long haul," as one administration official put it.
Obama will need willing Asian partners as he works to combat nuclear proliferation, reduce the threat of global warming and invigorate the world economy. But in the run-up to the trip, the White House downplayed expectations that concrete agreements would result right away.
That Obama is leaving the country amid a bitter recession underscores Asia's importance. "This is the fastest-growing economic region in the world," said Ben Rhodes, a deputy national security adviser.
Obama has already visited Europe and Africa; Asia is a region he can't neglect. Over the past decade, perceptions have risen that China is the dominant player in the region while America's influence has ebbed. Even a reliable ally, Japan, has complained about being a kind of junior partner to the United States.
In face-to-face meetings with Asian leaders and more informal encounters with students, Obama will try to rebuild old alliances and create new ones.
Obama will try to make headway on a number of economic, environmental and military matters that are crucial to the United States. He particularly wants the region to pump up consumer purchases so that the United States can find a bigger market for its exports.
"The United States does an extraordinary amount of business in this region," Rhodes said.