As President Barack Obama wrapped up his final trip to Asia while in office, he reflected Thursday on his long ties to a region that he has made a central focus of U.S. foreign policy.
In a final news conference before departing Laos, he said that he was proud to be the first U.S. president to meet with the leaders of all 10 Association of Southeast Asian Nations countries, and that he hoped his successor would continue to make the region a priority.
“My hope and expectation ... is that my successor will, in fact, sustain this kind of engagement, because there is a lot happening here," he said. "You’ve got countries here that are taking off. You’ve got one of the most dynamic and youngest populations in the world. This is where the action is going to be when it comes to commerce and trade, and ultimately creating U.S. jobs by being able to sell to this market.”
Obama’s final Asia trip ended on a positive note after getting off to a rough start.
There was his botched arrival in China, where the president had to disembark from Air Force One on a shorter staircase from the belly of the plane when the Chinese failed to provide the customary metal staircase. North Korea tested a nuclear missile during the visit, as if to highlight one of the big failures of U.S. and international nonproliferation efforts.
Also, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte uttered an insult about Obama, prompting him to cancel their sit-down meeting. The two did speak briefly on the sidelines of the summit, after Duterte and his foreign minister expressed regret.
These awkward and tense moments prompted critics, including Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump, to say that foreign leaders were showing disrespect to the “lame duck” U.S. president, who only has five months left in office.
Asia expert and Brookings Institution senior fellow Jonathan Pollack told VOA he fundamentally disagreed: “The whole flap over the airplane stairs, this is one of the classic snafus, a glitch that could and should be avoided by the staffs of both leaders. There is a long record of similar glitches in the U.S.-China relationship.”
Pollack told VOA the long, substantive, face-to-face meeting between Chinese President Xi Jingping and Obama was much more important than any staircase drama, which he said the media had exaggerated.
Pollack said Philippine foreign ministry officials sincerely apologized for their president’s vulgar remark, because the last thing they want to do is to undermine that country’s relationship with the United States. He praised Obama for the way he handled the insult.
Obama struck a wistful tone at the news conference, saying he realized this was his last trip to Asia as president and remembering the years he spent in Indonesia as a child.
“When I think back to the time that I spent here as a boy, I can’t help but be struck by the extraordinary progress that’s been made across so much of the region in the decades since — even as there’s still a lot of work to be done," he said. "And so it means a great deal to me, not only as president, but also personally, that over the past eight years we’ve increased cooperation between ASEAN countries and the United States.”
Paris climate accord
Pollack said Obama’s commitment to the Asia-Pacific region was political, economic and highly personal, and pointed to the ratification of the Paris accord on climate change as the most significant accomplishment.
Pollack said the fate of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a trade agreement the president passionately supports, rests in the hands of Congress, which has vowed not to even take it up until after the next president has been inaugurated. He said the president’s Asia-Pacific rebalance ambitions were incomplete, but added that true success is often measured in the tough work of “keeping at it” instead of flashy breakthroughs.
But Matthew Goodman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington think tank, told VOA he thought Obama’s legacy in Asia hinged on whether Congress ratified the TPP agreement: “The economic part of the pivot is essential to the overall strategy and so if we can’t get TPP ratified by Congress, that is going to undermine the view of his overall legacy in the region in the political, military and social sides as well."
VOA's Ron Corben contributed to this report from Bangkok.