Obama visits Asia amid lingering issues at home

U.S. President Barack Obama and Thai Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra walk together during the arrival ceremony at Thai Koo Fah Building Government House in Bangkok, Thailand, Nov. 18, 2012.
AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais

Updated Nov. 18, 7:45 a.m. ET

With a second term locked down, President Obama is on his first post-reelection foreign trip to Southeast Asia, where he's expected to recognize emerging nations for their steps toward democracy and to try to strengthen ally support in the face of the United States' looming fellow superpower China.

To kick off the four-day tour, he arrived in Bangkok, Thailand on Sunday afternoon, local time (a little after 3 a.m. ET Sunday morning), and one of his first stops was to visit ailing King Bhumibol Adulyadej, who turns 85 next month and is in the hospital. He was accompanied by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who greeted the king by saying, "Hello again. It's so good to see you again. And my husband sends you his very best regards."

Before exchanging gifts, the king and Mr. Obama spoke briefly, to which the president responded, "Elections in the United States are very long but it's very gratifying to know people still have confidence in me. I thought it was very important that my first trip after the elections was to Thailand, which is such a great ally."

The president later headed to the Government House there with Clinton. The president was greeted by Thai prime minister Yingluck Shinawatra and the two leaders walked down a red carpet, flanked by dozens of Thai soldiers dressed in various military uniforms representing the different branches of the Thai military. Clinton, the U.S. Ambassador to Thailand and about 20 dignitaries stood behind Mr. Obama and Shinawatra.

Mr. Obama and Shinawatra held a press conference before attending an official dinner.

The visit to Thailand will "underscore our strong alliance and shared priorities and regional issues," according to Clinton's office. Monday, the president and Clinton will then travel to Rangoon, Myanmar, for a meeting with the Burmese president, and will finish in Phnom Penh, Cambodia for the East Asia Summit.

Mr. Obama will become the first sitting U.S. president to visit Myanmar - the former pariah state also called Burma - as well as Cambodia. His visit to Myanmar is controversial; it has been criticized by human rights activists who have said that the country should prove it has truly moved on from its years of brutal military rule before it deserves a presidential visit.

The president said in his Bangkok press conference today that his visit to Myanmar "isn't an endorsement of the Burmese government" but simply "an acknowledgment there's a process underway" towards democracy that "nobody forsaw." Saturday, deputy national security adviser Ben Rhodes, told reporters the president will initiate "dialogue with the Burmese government about the need to reduce their relationship with North Korea."

"We see that as an issue where they've been moving in a positive direction," Rhodes said. "We'd like to reinforce that action and, again, see Burma break its military ties with the North Koreans."

A visit to Asia - Mr. Obama's fourth during as many years in the White House - is personal for the Hawaii-born first "Pacific president." It also stands to send a message that the president's making good on his promise to turn U.S. attention to the region, something Rhodes noted earlier this week: "Continuing to fill in our pivot to Asia will be a critical part of this president's second term," he said, "and ultimately his foreign policy legacy."

The positive theme abroad comes at a time when the president's national security team faces questions from Republicans on its handling of the aftermath in the wake of the Benghazi attacks and also faces scandal, stemming from former CIA director David Petraeus' extramarital affair and subsequent resignation. But 44 days before the United States could be toeing the edge of the so-called "fiscal cliff," it's also a moment when some experts say emerging nations in the region may be questioning the soundness of economies in democratic systems.

While Rhodes said prior to the trip that nations like Myanmar show they are "sending a powerful signal" that people are rejecting the idea that an authoritarian model of government like China's is "key to development," national security adviser to former President George W. Bush Stephen Hadley suggested the current state of the U.S. economy could change that thinking.

"That's why countries are flirting with this notion that maybe China has it right: state capitalism plus keeping your people in line," he recently told the World Affairs Councils of America, according to the Associated Press. "That is very destructive." 

Another former Bush aide and now senior vice president at the foreign policy think tank, the Center for Strategic and International Studies Michael Green told the AP that within Asia there's more than just concern about democracies rising out of the U.S. "fiscal cliff": "Some, particularly allies," he said, "will worry about the impact on defense spending at a time when Chinese power is rising." 

But during remarks to the East Asia Summit on Friday, Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta vowed to deepen military engagement with allies in Southeast Asia "in order to ensure that we are able to promote security and prosperity for many years to come." 

"The United States' rebalance to the Asia-Pacific region is real, it is sustainable, and it will be ongoing for a long period of time," he said.

An earlier version of this article reported the president would arrive in Thailand on Saturday afternoon local time. He arrives Sunday afternoon local time.

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