President Obama has staked much of his foreign policy legacy on boosting America’s presence in Asia. He has increased the number of Navy ships in Asia’s contested waters, forged ties with old adversaries, and relentlessly pursued a massive and controversial Asia-Pacific trade accord.
But as he heads to the region for his 10th visit since 2009, the president’s effort to shift America’s focus more decisively toward Asia remains a work in progress. And the unfinished and reversible nature of the president’s signal foreign policy initiative raises an even larger question: In an age of political dysfunction at home, chaos in the Middle East and growing threats to the liberal international order, is it possible for any president to set a strategic foreign policy course and stick to it?
Obama’s trip to Asia, which begins Saturday in China with a Group of 20 economic summit and includes a first-ever presidential visit to Laos, offers one view of the challenges Obama has faced in pursuing his overarching vision.
“We see this trip as really bringing together a number of the president’s top priorities for the last seven and a half years,” said Ben Rhodes, a deputy national security adviser. The list of legacy-defining items includes managing the increasingly tense territorial disputes between China and its neighbors in the South China Sea, cyberespionage, climate change and trade.
Just as daunting are the flashpoint issues of the moment that could serve to deflect the president’s attention. In China, Obama is set to meet with President Xi Jinping, but his most closely watched meetings likely will be with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, a critical and increasingly troublesome ally in the battle against the Islamic State.
“That’s going to be a very contentious meeting and drive as many headlines as anything he will do in Asia,” said Ian Bremmer, president of the Eurasia Group, a global political-risk consulting firm.
In recent weeks Erdogan has blasted the United States for failing to extradite a U.S. resident whom the Turkish leader blames for a recent coup. Obama will also need to address tension arising from the increasingly nasty shooting war in Syria between Turkey and the Kurdish militia fighters — both critical allies in a fight against the Islamic State.
The meeting with Erdogan highlights a paradox for Obama. The White House has long insisted that the most consequential development of the 21st century is the rise of the Asia -Pacific region as an economic powerhouse. But the problems and opportunities in Asia rarely come with the pressing deadlines or the prospect of dire consequences as crises elsewhere in the world.