Photograph by Joshua Roberts/Bloomberg, Illustration by Bloomberg View
Photograph by Joshua Roberts/Bloomberg, Illustration by Bloomberg View

With his trip to Southeast Asia, President Barack Obama is surpassing the Woody Allen test of Asian diplomacy -- i.e., just showing up. Not only is this his first foreign excursion after his re-election, it’s also the first visit by a sitting U.S. president to Myanmar.

Both distinctions are symbols of the administration’s commendable “pivot” to Asia, a strategic shift whose fuzzy outlines are starting to come into stronger focus. For a broader rebalancing to succeed, however, the president will have to find a way to expand the U.S. presence without inciting a harsh backlash from a new Chinese leadership worried about encirclement. And for Obama’s commitment to deeper U.S. engagement in Asia to be credible, he must also take on some stiff challenges at home.

Obama’s trip to Thailand, Myanmar and Cambodia takes place against a backdrop of tension and uncertainty. China and Japan are at daggers drawn over a handful of rocky islets surrounded by potentially rich deposits of oil and gas. China’s leadership transition and recent political jockeying in Japan have fed nationalist flames on both sides. Meanwhile, territorial tensions between China and several of its Southeast Asian neighbors roil the South China Sea. The U.S. and China have traded diplomatic missives over that issue, with increasingly shrill ripostes from the Chinese side. This past summer, the dispute led to a remarkable failure by foreign ministers from the Association of Southeast Asian Nations to agree on their summit communique.

Defense Spending

China’s rise is one good reason for the U.S. to rebalance its strategic presence in Asia. And the U.S. is by no means the only country to do so: According to one recent study, defense spending by China, India, Japan, South Korea and Taiwan accelerated sharply in the second half of the last decade, and at $224 billion in 2011 was almost double the amount of a decade earlier.

As U.S. officials have taken pains to point out, however, the U.S. has reasons far beyond China’s higher military spending to seek a bigger presence in Asia. The region now accounts for 25 percent of U.S. exports (supporting an estimated 2.4 million U.S. jobs) and 35 percent of its imports. By 2030, according to one estimate, it will account for 49 percent of global population, 43 percent of gross domestic product (up from 32 percent in 2010), 35 percent of trade, 38 percent of market capitalization and 41 percent of energy consumption -- not to mention 46 percent of global greenhouse emissions. Those numbers generally outstrip the combined projections for the U.S. and European Union by growing ratios: Failure to deepen U.S. engagement with Asia would be strategic malpractice on a grand scale.

President Obama’s trip will give him a chance to advance broad U.S. goals that predate China’s recent rise. Thailand, his first stop, has been a diplomatic partner with the U.S. for almost two centuries; its recent decision to join talks for the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the Obama administration’s top trade priority, will bolster established economic ties.

In Myanmar, Obama’s next stop, headlines will rightly focus on U.S. efforts to lock in progress for democracy and human rights and increase the prospects for investment. Myanmar’s opening also represents a remarkable opportunity to advance another longstanding U.S. interest: fighting hunger, as the U.S. did in the Green Revolution sown partly by the innovations of Americans such as Norman Borlaug. Myanmar was the world’s biggest exporter of rice from 1960 to 1963; today it is ninth. With improved yields, production could more than double. Emphasizing such opportunities is a good way to remind China’s more paranoid strategists that encircling China is not the only reason for U.S. presidents to hop on a plane to Asia.

Maritime Rules

In Cambodia, the leaders of 12 nations participating in the East Asia Summit will have the chance to calm the waters of the South China and East China seas. We hope they will reach agreement on a code of conduct for avoiding maritime conflict, something that China and the members of Asean have been discussing for a decade.

The Obama administration could spur that effort by pushing the Senate to ratify the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, which safeguards U.S. interests in navigation and commerce and provides a strong framework for resolving such sovereignty disputes. The results of the U.S. election might prompt Republican senators to rethink their obstinate and misguided opposition.

More fundamentally, the Obama administration needs to back up its big words on Asia by getting the U.S. fiscal house in order. Asian leaders can read budgets and newspapers. They know that the crude defense cuts called for by the 2011 debt-ceiling deal won’t help U.S. plans to sustain a robust presence in the Pacific. They know that uncertainty over the fiscal future will cast a deep shadow over any U.S. economic recovery, stunting trade and imperiling greater integration. And they know that the longer this uncertainty lasts, the longer the Federal Reserve’s magical money machine will crank out cheap dollars, devaluing their more than $2 trillion in U.S. IOUs and beggaring their own exporters.

Put bluntly, the Obama administration’s Asian promises largely depend on what it can deliver at home.

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