On his first day of a weeklong Asia trip, President Barack Obama was multitasking Monday: He sought to counter perceptions that he’s a weakened leader, tried to dispel claims that he seeks to “contain” China and yet obliquely criticized Beijing’s human rights record and trade policies.
Obama, speaking to the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit, announced an agreement to make it easier for Chinese and U.S. citizens to travel between their countries. He praised President Xi Jinping for helping to broker the new visa policy, which he said would facilitate business, education and tourism on both sides of the Pacific.
Yet he also noted several economic challenges the Pacific Rim faces, including widespread corruption and the discrimination women confront in starting businesses in male-dominated societies. While he didn’t mention China by name, some of his comments were clearly aimed toward APEC’s host country this year.
“Steady, sustainable growth requires promoting policies and practices that keep the Internet open and accessible,” Obama said. “Steady, sustainable growth requires a planet where people can breathe clean air and drink clean water and eat safe food.”
Obama is meeting with some of the 20 Pacific Rim leaders who are attending the annual Asia-Pacific summit in Beijing. APEC nations make up roughly 57 percent of the global economy, including the three largest economies: the United States, China and Japan. By traveling here, Obama is again trying to make the case that the United States’ future is tied to the prosperity of Asia.
As part of that pitch, he’s touting the improvement of the U.S. economy. The narrative is that the United States is a more dependable source of investment and a better place to invest than China, which is seeking to restructure its economy and accept slower growth as a consequence.
At the same time, Obama is trying to persuade Asia that he remains focused on the region despite foreign policy crises in Iraq, Syria and Ukraine that have consumed his attention. A year ago, he missed the APEC summit in Bali because of the budget stalemate in Washington, causing some in Asia to question his commitment.
A week ago, Obama and his party lost control of the Senate, further eroding Asian confidence in his ability to deliver.
“The United States is not just here in Asia to check a box,” the president said Monday. “We are here because we believe our shared future is here in Asia, just as our shared past has been.”
Although Obama can’t claim credit for it, a big story of APEC so far is reduced tensions between China and Japan. On Monday, President Xi and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe held their first meeting since both took office two years ago. It came three days after the two countries announced a deal aimed at improving relations and sidelining territorial disputes over islands in the East China Sea.
China’s state media downplayed the meeting, with the Xinhua news service reporting that it “came at the request of the Japanese side.” News service photos show an uncomfortable Xi and Abe shaking hands in the Great Hall of the People, looking as if they were participants in a shotgun wedding.
According to Xinhua, Xi urged Japan to “do more things that help enhance the mutual trust between Japan and its neighboring countries, and play a constructive role in safeguarding the region’s peace and stability.”
Japanese officials were more upbeat about the 25-minute meeting, according to a report Monday in The Japan Times. “By going back to the original point of a strategic relationship of mutual benefit, the first step was taken in improving relations,” Abe said shortly after he met with Xi.
The new visa policy announced Monday was lauded by business and other groups. For U.S. citizens residing in China, the current one-year visa for business in China would be extended for as much as 10 years. The education visa would be extended as long as five years.
Chinese business investors and students would also benefit, enjoying longer visa extensions to reside in the United States, according to a White House statement. A senior administration official said Monday that it could lead to hundreds of thousands of jobs being created in the United States, many of them in tourism. Some 100 million Chinese traveled worldwide last year, but only 1.8 million came to the United States.
Monday evening, Obama participated in several APEC ceremonies. One of these was a photo op widely mocked on social media, in which he and other heads of state were photographed wearing outfits that resembled “Star Trek” uniforms.
Earlier in the evening, Obama met with President Joko Widodo of Indonesia, where Obama lived as a child.
Widodo was sworn in last month as only the second directly elected president of the world’s fourth-most populous nation. Although Indonesia faces challenges with Islamist extremists, Obama called Widodo’s election an “affirmation of the full transition Indonesia has made to a thriving democracy and a model for the kind of tolerance and pluralism that we want to see all around the world.”
Obama also held a bilateral meeting Monday with Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott. According to a White House statement on the meeting, the two discussed international security issues, including their partnership in Afghanistan and their alliance against the Islamic State group in Iraq and Syria. They also talked about tensions in the shipping lanes of Asia.
“Both countries oppose the use of intimidation, coercion or force to advance territorial or maritime claims in the East and South China seas,” said the statement, an obvious swipe at China for its aggressive territorial claims in the region.
Obama was greeted by Xi at a ceremony Monday and is scheduled to dine with him Tuesday and then have a longer, official bilateral meeting with the Chinese leader Wednesday, Beijing time. While Xi tends to be a gracious host with all foreign dignitaries, one of his state-run newspapers, the Global Times, recently lambasted Obama, editorializing that the U.S. president was an “insipid” leader.
After China, Obama will fly Wednesday to Myanmar, previously known as Burma, where he'll engage with leaders of a country that no longer appears to be an emerging beacon of democracy in Asia. He then heads Saturday to Australia, where he'll deliver another speech and briefly attend the G-20 economic summit of industrial and emerging-market nations in Brisbane. He will return to Washington on Sunday.