Barack Obama sent a forceful message about his foreign policy priorities even before he set out on his first visit as US President to Asia. By staying away from Europe's celebrations for the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, in order – so it was said – to concentrate on preparations for his Far Eastern tour, he disappointed Chancellor Angela Merkel, but clearly demonstrated that he wanted nothing to detract from the idea that the US is also a Pacific power.
Mr Obama is not the first US leader, of course, to want to make the point that America faces West as well as East. Successive presidents have had first Japan, and now China, in their sights as the rising regional power. Mr Obama's immediate predecessor, George Bush, made China an early focus of his foreign policy, speaking of a "strategic partnership", but he was soon thrown off that particular course by 9/11 and the various manifestations of his "war on terror" that followed.
Perhaps because China in recent years has made such rapid economic strides, because Beijing has started to steer a conspicuously more assertive course abroad, economically and militarily, and because the US financial crisis exposed the extent to which the US economy had become dependent on China, China has sped up the list of US concerns. Mr Obama, along with many Americans, senses that US influence in the Pacific region has been waning of late. This visit represents a serious attempt to show the US flag. As such, it contains a warning that China – however peaceful it insists its rise will be – will not have the region to itself.
Mr Obama's route also suggests a recognition in Washington that, if it the US is to have any chance of containing China, at least in the short term, it has a considerable amount of fence-mending to be done with long-standing allies. Mr Obama is spending time in Japan and South Korea, either side of his participation in the Asia-Pacific economic summit in Singapore and top-level meetings in Shanghai and Beijing.
There is a host of regional problems to be tackled: from North Korea's nuclear intentions to Burma's prickly isolation. But the growing might of China is what this visit is all about.Reuse content