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Obama’s Asia Visit Highlights Region’s Priority for Second Term

A monk

A monk walks by graffiti welcoming President Obama to Rangoon. Obama will be the first U.S. president to visit Burma.

16 November 2012 

Washington — President Obama’s first trip since his November 6 re-election will be to the Asia-Pacific region, which sends a “powerful signal” that the region will remain a strategic priority for the United States and a focus for its diplomatic activity, resources and engagement, says the president’s national security adviser, Tom Donilon.

In remarks prepared for delivery November 15 to the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, Donilon said Obama will be visiting Thailand, Burma and Cambodia November 17–20 and will participate in the East Asia Summit in Phnom Penh, Cambodia.

No American president has ever visited Burma or Cambodia, and Obama will be only the fifth U.S. president to visit Thailand, which Donilon described as “our oldest friend in the region.”

Under President Obama’s direction, the U.S. focus on the Asia-Pacific region is “grounded in a simple proposition,” Donilon said.

“The United States is a Pacific power whose interests are inextricably linked with Asia’s economic, security and political order. America’s success in the 21st century is tied to the success of Asia,” he said.

As part of this, the Obama administration’s overarching objective is to “sustain a stable security environment and a regional order rooted in economic openness, peaceful resolution of disputes, democratic governance and political freedom.”

Across the region, the United States hopes to see the rise of new powers occur peacefully, where vibrant commerce will be empowered by free access to trade routes and cyberspace, and where the peoples of the Asia-Pacific region “increasingly have the ability to influence their governments and universal human rights are upheld,” Donilon said.

BURMA VISIT TO ENCOURAGE REFORM AND DEMOCRATIZATION

Donilon said President Obama’s November 19 visit to Burma reflects his conviction that engagement with the country’s authorities is “the best way” to encourage them to continue recent steps toward reform and democratization after nearly five decades of military rule.

“In becoming the first U.S. president to visit Burma, the president is endorsing and supporting the reforms under way, giving momentum to reformers and promoting continued progress,” he said.

Along with government officials, Obama plans to meet with opposition figures — including Aung San Suu Ky — and civil society representatives to “demonstrate that the U.S. can be counted on as a partner when a government makes the right choices,” Donilon said.

Donilon stressed that progress still needs to be made in Burma, including the unconditional release of remaining political prisoners, steps to establish the rule of law and an end to the country’s ethnic conflicts and discrimination against the country’s Muslim minority Rohingya population. U.S. officials also want to see an end to the use of child soldiers, and see humanitarian and human rights groups get expanded access to conflict areas, he said.

In a November 15 conference call with reporters, U.S. National Security Council (NSC) Senior Director for Multilateral Affairs and Human Rights Samantha Power said President Obama has indicated his willingness to engage countries across the world that show a concrete will to reform and make political progress.

“The president is sending a signal to other countries where reform either is not happening or repression is happening [that] … if you take these steps … we will meet you action for action,” Power said.

Power said President Obama will encourage more Burmese voices to become engaged, such as youth, businesspeople, teachers, lower-ranking members of the military and other citizens, to “take ownership of this process now as it enters its next phase, and to build the checks and balances that are really the requirement in this country for these reforms to be sustainable and for this to become a true democracy over time.”

The NSC’s senior director for Asia, Danny Russel, said the president’s visit comes at a moment when U.S. officials believe Burma’s leaders “have put their feet on the right path,” and that it is critical that “we not miss a moment to influence them to keep them going.”

The United States wants to help make Burma’s progress “irreversible,” Russel said. “We want to show the people of Burma that there are benefits to be had from the hard work, and move some of the leaders off this fence and into the reform program.”

Deputy National Security Advisor Ben Rhodes said that in response to reforms, the Obama administration has lifted a “substantial amount” of U.S. economic sanctions, which will allow U.S. investment and U.S. companies into the country.

Rhodes said this will help “the development of a private sector within Burma that can create a broader base of prosperity in a country where the government controlled so much of the economy in the past.”

“We see Burma as an important potential partner for the United States going forward if they continue down this path of reform,” Rhodes said, adding that if the country can duplicate the type of democratic development by many of its neighbors “it could be an extraordinary boost to the economy of the region and to the global economy.”