Barack Obama’s trip to Myanmar is a gift from the photo-opportunity gods. The sight of the U.S. president standing beside political-prisoner-turned-Nobel- laureate Aung San Suu Kyi in Yangon will be a heart-warming moment for a world yearning for good news.
The most remarkable thing about Obama’s first trip abroad since his re-election is his itinerary. During the four-day journey that starts tomorrow, Obama will bypass China as well as such staunch Pacific allies as Australia, Japan and South Korea, not to mention Europe and the Middle East. Rather, he will stop in Thailand, Cambodia and Myanmar, formerly known as Burma.
The obvious motivation for the route is to drum up new markets for corporate America with U.S.-led regional trade talks. Less obvious is telling Southeast Asia that for the U.S., China isn’t the only game in town. It is a show of support not just for Myanmar’s opening, but for nations that may be future democratic bulwarks in a region awash in authoritarianism.
That is surely how many in China see Obama’s journey, and he shouldn’t be reluctant to own that message. China’s belligerent behavior has unnerved other Asian nations, prompting their leaders to put out a large welcome mat for the U.S. It is an ideal juncture for the U.S. in a region that is home to most of the world’s people, many of its geopolitical trouble spots and some of the most-dynamic economies. Will Obama, dubbed by some as the first Asian-American president, rise to the occasion?