KUALA LUMPUR: US President Barack Obama voiced his determination to put Asia front and center in his foreign policy Saturday, even as a two-nation visit to the region was eclipsed by jihadist attacks in France and Mali.
America’s self-styled “Pacific president” has been frustrated to see a trip to Malaysia and the Philippines — designed to highlight his stated re-focus on Asia — overshadowed once again.
After years of talking about the need to deepen trade, security and diplomatic ties with the region, White House officials had hoped the trip would be a victory lap.
Twelve countries recently agreed to Obama’s Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade pact, and the US pledged to boost security assistance to its ally the Philippines, which is in a confrontation with China over maritime territory.
During the week-long Asia swing, Obama has touted his years growing up in Southeast Asia, vowed to become the first president to visit Laos, and chatted with audience members in Bahasa Indonesia.
But at a Southeast Asian business forum on Saturday, Obama had to begin by talking about events half a world away in Mali, where at least 21 people died in an attack by gun-toting jihadists.
Obama condemned the “barbarity” and stressed the need to combat violent jihadism globally.
Later Saturday Obama made a long-planned visit to a refugee center that took on a domestic political hue, thanks to a bitter debate over Syrian and Iraq migrants in the United States.
During his stop at the Dignity for Children Foundation, Obama knelt down to chat to children aged between seven and nine years about their art work and hopes for the future.
Many at the small, well-appointed center, complete with a pet bunny, were members of Myanmar’s persecuted Rohingya Muslim minority, which was at the center of a dramatic boatpeople crisis earlier this year.
He later said the kids were “the face of not only refugees from Myanmar — that’s the face of Syrian children and Iraqi children”.
“When I sat there and talked to them, they were drawing and doing their math problems; they were indistinguishable from any child in America,” he said.
Trying to get back on message, Obama made the case to the region, if not the distracted American public, that “security and prosperity of the Asia Pacific is vital to the national interests of the United States.”
“When I became president, I made a strategic decision that after a decade in which the United States had focused so heavily elsewhere, especially the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, that we would rebalance our foreign policy and play a larger and long-term role here in the Asia Pacific.”
“While I’ve been in office, we’ve boosted our exports across Asia by more than 50 percent, to record levels,” he said.
“We’ve strengthened our alliances. We’ve modernized our defense posture. More US forces are rotating through more parts of the region for training and exercises.”
With the TPP deal yet to navigate its way through a hostile Congress, Obama also made the case for US ratification.
US allies are skittish that the deal may not be signed into law before Obama leaves office in early 2017.
“A new trade deal like TPP can be a tough sell,” he admitted, before insisting “TPP is a win for the United States. I’m not going to be shy about this.”
Positioning himself as the salesman-in-chief for US industry, Obama even took to boosting a host of sectors including farmers — “there is no steak like American steak,” he said.
Obama, who heads homes Sunday, also had a message for his hosts in Malaysia, deciding to meet civil society groups who have come under pressure from an increasingly heavy-handed government.
“When you have a strong civil society, you have a government that’s more accountable,” he told the group.
“Malaysia, as a country that traditionally has a wide range of ethnic groups and religious faiths and a tradition of tolerance, very much benefits from the multiplicity of voices that need to be heard,” Obama said.