Analysts on Obama's Trip to Asia

By The NewsHour, The NewsHour - November 19, 2009

KWAME HOLMAN: On his last day in Asia, Mr. Obama stood side by side with South Korean President Lee Myung-Bak, but much of their focus was on North Korea and its nuclear weapons program.

U.S. PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Our message is clear. If North Korea is prepared to take concrete and irreversible steps to fulfill its obligations and eliminate its nuclear weapons program, the United States will support economic assistance and help promote its full integration into the community of nations. That opportunity and respect will not come with threats. North Korea must live up to its obligations.

KWAME HOLMAN: That statement echoed President Lee's offer of a grand bargain, aid for the communist North in return for giving up nuclear weapons.

LEE MYUNG-BAK, president, South Korea (through translator): The North Koreans haven't yet conveyed what they thought of the grand bargain, but, in order for the North Koreans to ensure their stability, to improve the lives of the North Korean population, to have economic prosperity, in short, for a better future for the North Koreans, it is my wish that the North Koreans adopt the grand bargain proposal.

KWAME HOLMAN: The offer came just a week after North and South Korean ships exchanged fire near a disputed border in the Yellow Sea. Neither president mentioned the sea clash today. Instead, Mr. Obama announced he will send an envoy to North Korea next month, the first direct talks between Washington and Pyongyang since he took office.

But he insisted it's time for the North to change its ways.

BARACK OBAMA: The thing I want to emphasize is that President Lee and I both agree on the need to break the pattern that has existed in the past, in which North Korea behaves in a provocative fashion. It then is willing to return to talks. It talks for a while,and then leaves the talks seeking further concessions, and there is never actually any progress on the core issues.

KWAME HOLMAN: The president also had a warning for Iran on its nuclear program. He said, the U.S. and its allies are willing to pursue fresh sanctions soon, unless Iran starts cooperating.

There also was a point of tension between Mr. Obama and his South Korean host, a stalled free trade agreement. Opponents in the U.S. Congress have complained, such a deal would hurt U.S. manufacturers, but the president said he expects progress.

BARACK OBAMA: To strengthen those ties, President Lee and I discussed the U.S.-Korea Free Trade Agreement, which holds out the promise of serving our mutual interests. And, together, we are committed to working together to move the agreement forward.

KWAME HOLMAN: Those same themes of liberalizing trade policy and halting the spread of nuclear weapons dominated much of the president's Asia tour, which also took him to Japan, Singapore and China. The goal was to show American re-engagement with a fast-growing and increasingly influential region.

The president's three days in China were the centerpiece, highlighting that nation's growing economic and military importance. Talks with Chinese President Hu Jintao yielded no new agreements, but Mr. Obama talked optimistically about improving relations with China.

BARACK OBAMA: The major challenges of the 21st century, from climate change, to nuclear proliferation, to economic recovery, are challenges that touch both our nations and challenges that neither of our nations can solve by acting alone.

KWAME HOLMAN: The two men also aired some disagreements, as when Hu criticized American penalties on imported Chinese goods.

HU JINTAO, president, China (through translator): I stressed to President Obama that, under the current circumstances, our two countries need to oppose and reject protectionism in all its manifestations in an even stronger stand.

KWAME HOLMAN: Mr. Obama heard similar complaints about U.S. protectionism at a regional summit in Singapore.

And, in Japan, the key U.S. ally in Asia, he faced new Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama, who is pressing for a greater say in the relationship. He also wants to reduce the U.S. military presence in Okinawa.

President Obama drew his warmest welcome in South Korea, even hugging President Lee at the end of their news conference today. And, later, at Osan Air Force Base, he underscored the continued importance of a strong American presence in Asia.

BARACK OBAMA: At every step of my journey, one truth is clear: The security that allows families to live in peace in Asia and America, the prosperity that allows people to pursue their dreams, the freedoms and liberties that we cherish, they're not accidents of history. They are the direct result of the work that you do.

KWAME HOLMAN: From there, the president boarded Air Force One for the long journey home to Washington.

JIM LEHRER: And to Jeffrey Brown.

JEFFREY BROWN: And we look at the president's trip now with James Fallows of "The Atlantic" magazine. He recently returned from living in China. Yasheng Huang is a professor of political economy and international management at the Sloan School of Management at MIT. And David Lampton is a professor of China studies at the School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University.

Welcome to all of you.

JAMES FALLOWS, "The Atlantic": Right.

JEFFREY BROWN: What's your assessment?

JAMES FALLOWS: I think that the point of the trip was mainly that it happened at all. And the re-engagement would be the crucial theme.

If we were -- I think we talked earlier this week about what could be realistically expected from this journey. And it would be, you know, impractical to think that any of the really difficult problems, economic imbalances, financial imbalances, environmental ones, would actually be solved here.

But, from this clip we just saw, you see the range and the complexity of U.S. engagement there, the military presence in Japan, and, in Korea, the issue of North Korea, the all -- all the -- the whole range. So, the fact that the president was there showing U.S. presence I think was the main point.

JEFFREY BROWN: Yasheng Huang, the fact of being there or concrete accomplishments, what did you see?

YASHENG HUANG, MIT Sloan School Of Management: I agree with James.

I think re-engagement is the critical piece of success here. If you don't reengage after eight years of unilateralism of the Bush administration, if you don't reengage with the region, you really cannot reach any solutions on these concrete political and economic issues. So, re-engagement is the purpose of the trip. And I think it has been accomplished.

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