WASHINGTON – President Barack Obama is darting off to Southeast Asia to showcase a foreign policy achievement and reinforce the U.S. role as a counterweight to China.
Obama leaves Saturday for a four-day trip to Thailand, Myanmar and Cambodia, his first trip abroad since June and his fourth to Asia, where he has been eager to expand the U.S. footprint. It's a brief break from dicey fiscal negotiations and a national security sex scandal that are competing with the glow of his re-election.
Freed from the constraints of campaigning, Obama is quickly re-establishing his foreign policy credentials by being the first U.S. president to visit Myanmar, also known as Burma, which was internationally shunned for decades and is now hailed for its steps toward democratization.
Obama is also attending the East Asia Summit in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, eager to secure the U.S.'s place as a major player in a region that long has operated under China's influence. The trip underscores Obama's goal of establishing the United States as an Asian-Pacific power, a worldview defined by 21st-century geopolitics but also by Obama's personal identity as America's first Pacific president. Obama was born in Hawaii.
The White House sees the trip in historic terms, in no small part because of the breakthrough with Myanmar, but also because of its broader strategic significance.
"Continuing to fill in our pivot to Asia will be a critical part of this president's second term and ultimately his foreign policy legacy," said deputy national security adviser Ben Rhodes.
In choosing this time to travel – the East Asia Summit was scheduled some time ago – Obama is taking advantage of his electoral success, and his international counterparts are bound to be in a congratulatory mood.
But Obama also heads out at a sensitive time for the U.S. economy. Only six weeks remain before automatic tax increases and deep spending cuts kick in that could set back the economy if Obama and congressional Republicans don't find agreement on a deficit reduction plan.
Stephen Hadley, national security adviser to President George W. Bush, cautioned that failure by Washington to resolve the so-called fiscal cliff could signal to emerging economies that the democratic system is flawed.
"That's why countries are flirting with this notion that maybe China has it right: State capitalism plus keeping your people in line," he recently told the World Affairs Councils of America. "That is very destructive."
But China also has problems with corruption and a sluggish economy.
"Burma is sending a powerful signal that people are rejecting the notion that an authoritarian model is the key to development," Rhodes said.
Still, the precarious nature of the budget negotiations is not lost on Asian countries and Obama will likely find himself on the sidelines offering reassurances to other leaders that the U.S. will not plunge over a fiscal cliff.
"Some, particularly allies, will worry about the impact on defense spending at a time when Chinese power is rising," said Michael Green, a former Asia adviser to Bush who now is a senior vice president at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a foreign policy think tank.
Telegraphing Obama's response to that concern, White House national security adviser Tom Donilon conceded that "after a decade of war ... there will be reductions in the U.S. defense budget."
But, he added: "Guided by our new defense strategy, our defense spending program will continue to support our key priorities, including our presence and missions in Asia."
No doubt, Obama also will be dogged by personnel matters back home. His CIA director, David Petraeus, abruptly resigned after acknowledging an extramarital affair. The identity of the next spy chief is no minor matter to the Chinese, but also to Asian allies.
During the brief stop Monday in Myanmar, Obama will meet with opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi and President Thein Sein, and deliver an address in which he will call for continued political reforms in the country.
Myanmar's democratization has led to rare bipartisanship in the U.S. capital. Republican Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, who has had a longstanding interest in the Asian country, commended Obama for scheduling the trip.
"I think it's an important step for him to take," McConnell said.
In Cambodia, also a first visit for a sitting U.S. president, Obama will participate in the East Asia Summit, which includes the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations and eight other nations: the United States, China, Japan, South Korea, India, Russia, Australia and New Zealand.
Obama will hold separate one-on-one meetings with outgoing Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao and Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda.
Those meetings come amid territorial disputes in the region, including rival claims by China, the Philippines and Vietnam to South China Sea islands and disputed East China Sea islands controlled by Japan.
The trip is not without controversy.
Human rights groups have argued that Obama's trip to Myanmar is premature and that, in seeking to find allies in the region, Obama has been less attentive to repressive regimes such as that of Cambodia's longtime Prime Minister Hun Sen.
Obama aides acknowledge that Myanmar can still do better and say Obama will raise U.S. concerns about Cambodia's crackdowns on dissidents and civil society groups in the meeting with Hun Sen.