US President Barack Obama applauds with Southeast Asian leaders, Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono (left), Philippines President Benigno Aquino (2nd from the left) and Brunei Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah (right), at the East Asia Summit on Indonesia's resort island of Bali on Nov. 19, 2011.
Credit: Romeo Gacad

BOSTON — US President Barack Obama completed a stunningly successful eight-day trip to the Asia-Pacific region last week, confounding China and strengthening America’s commitment to more half the world’s population.

Although it upends conventional wisdom, Obama's foreign-policy saavy may prove to be his most convincing argument for re-election — all the more so as Republican presidential contenders bounce from isolationism to overt aggression to appalling ignorance on international issues.

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With a weak economy, high unemployment and a dysfunctional Congress dimming the prospects of transformative success on the homefront, Obama seems to have decided to focus on America’s long list of vital national security and economic interests around the world. The Asia trip was the boldest of his presidency.

Starting in Hawaii, where he hosted the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum on free trade, the president flew on to Australia where he announced that the United States would base 2,500 Marines in the city of Darwin on Australia’s north coast. This highly symbolic upgrading of the historically close ties between America and Australia was a clear signal to China that the US military retains a major commitment to the region.

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Obama moved on to the Indonesian island of Bali for the annual meeting of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations and the surprise announcement of a historic re-opening in ties to Burma (officially called Myanmar). Hillary Clinton will become the first US secretary of state to visit Burma since before the onset of the Vietnam War. 

Simultaneously, Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, Burma’s revered opposition leader, announced that she would rejoin the country’s political system. The confluence of these developments further telegraphed America’s more assertive approach in Asia as well as the administration’s new determination to compete hard with China for influence in the region.

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Also in Bali, Obama became the first US president to attend the 18-nation East Asia Summit where a main issue was China’s expansionist claims to the rich oil and gas deposits in the South China Sea.

Obama forcefully aligned America with the position held by nearly every other country in East Asia: that the South China Sea was not China’s exclusive territory.

“As a resident Pacific power,” Obama said, America has “a powerful stake in maritime security in general, and in the resolution of the South China Sea issue specifically.”

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Clinton signaled Obama’s new policy toward the Asia Pacific region in a November article she wrote for Foreign Policy entitled "America’s Pacific Century." Making reference to America’s post World War II commitment to the rebuilding of Europe and to forging a strong Atlantic Alliance she wrote, “The time has come for the United States to make similar investments as a Pacific power … Harnessing Asia’s growth and dynamism is central to American economic and strategic interests.”

Underscoring that theme, Obama was present at the signing in Indonesia of a $22 billion contract by Lion Air, that nation’s largest private airline, with Boeing for 230 aircrafts.

Indonesia is the world’s fourth-most populous nation, with 234 million people, after No. 1 China with 1.34 billion, India with 1.12 billion and the US at No. 3 with 310 million. Overall, Asia-Pacific nations hold more than 4 billion people or some 56 percent of the estimated 6.98 billion people on this planet. No wonder Obama and Clinton have decided that a major part of America’s future resides west of California, Alaska and Hawaii.

One of the smartest decisions of Obama’s presidency was to ask Clinton to be his secretary of state. She has been stalwart and superb in this vital role — confident, tireless and loyal to a fault.

This administration has a solid list of foreign policy accomplishments:

  • Winding down the Iraq War
  • Setting a 2014 deadline for ending US involvement in the decade-long Afghan War
  • The killing of Osama bin Laden, which brought an emotional closure to the national wound of 9/11
  • Insistence on a more restrained approach to US involvement in the Libyan conflict
  • Restoring our historically close relations with European allies
  • Pursuing a pragmatic and largely successful policy toward Russia

Of course, there have been failures as well, notably in Israel and Palestine, where peace remains as elusive as it has been the past 50 years.

Political commentators in this country frequently underestimate the importance that foreign policy plays in every presidential administration. No matter what a candidate may say or believe before entering office, history has proven that global concerns will eventually dominate.

Ironically, the 2012 election may prove to be the exact reverse of 1992 when Bill Clinton’s key strategist James Carville coined the famous phrase, “It’s the economy, stupid.” On the strength of public concern about the domestic economy, Clinton went on to defeat President George H.W. Bush, who initially seemed unbeatable in no small part because of his foreign-policy expertise and his success in the First Gulf War.

Americans realize that this country faces continuing, significant challenges abroad. The rising economic and military power of China may be the dominant issue of the next generation. And, of course, there is Iran and the threat it will develop and even use a nuclear weapon. Momentous decisions about Iran could be required even before Election Day 2012.

The state of the US economy is of profound importance to every American citizen, but no matter what happens with the economy we will still live in a dangerous and complex world. The decision about who is the wiser and safer choice to lead America in this perilous world may rise up to trump all else next November — and right now Obama is well-positioned to argue that he is the right choice.

Philip Balboni is chief executive officer and co-founder of GlobalPost.

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