America’s Eastern conundrum

Peter Baker

President Barack Obama flew around the world to visit a giant reclining Buddha and pay a courtesy call on a hospitalised king—all to make a point. After too many years of being obsessed with the Middle East, Obama argues, it is time for the US to focus on the rise of Asia. The only problem? The Middle East is not cooperating.

Obama had not even landed here in Thailand on Sunday before finding his four-day, three-country Asia tour shadowed by the new crisis in Israel and Gaza. Even his joint appearance with Thailand's prime minister was partly consumed by the Gaza question.

The peculiar timing underscores why Asia has often taken a back seat in US policy to the more volatile areas of the world.

The logic behind Obama's so-called Asia pivot draws little dispute: it is the region of the future, the area that will see nearly 50 per cent of the world's economic growth outside of the US over the next five years. To compete globally, the thinking goes, the US will need to assert itself as an economic and strategic power in the Pacific. Inside the Situation Room, though, long-term logic invariably falls victim to short-term crises, especially places like the Middle East.

"One of the great challenges in the implementation and execution of foreign policy is to prevent the daily challenges, cascading crises, from crowding out the development of broader strategies in pursuit of the United States' long-term interests," Tom Donilon, the president's national security adviser, said in a speech before leaving Washington.

As his first overseas journey after re-election, this Asia trip was meant to send a signal that his second term would focus on moving beyond the past, particularly the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

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