President Barack Obama's second trip to Asia since taking office is unlikely to result in tangible accomplishments, but the two-country sojourn could be an important step in restoring U.S. influence in the region.
The economy, terrorism and climate change all figure to play prominently in Obama's stops in Indonesia, the world's most populous Muslim nation, and Australia, a key U.S. ally and supporter of American military efforts in Afghanistan. Obama is the first U.S. president in at least a decade to travel to Southeast Asia for anything other than a regional summit, a move administration officials say reflects his efforts to strengthen relationships with smaller, emerging nations.
"There are a number of important middle powers, countries like Australia and Indonesia who are significant players," said Jeff Bader, the president's senior adviser for Asia.
As the president prepares to undertake his first international trip of the year, scheduled for Sunday, domestic politics have threatened to overshadow his foreign policy goals. The ongoing debate on health care reform forced Obama to push back his original Thursday departure by three days so he could stay in Washington and help Democrats on Capitol Hill rally last-minute votes for his overhaul plan. The change in itinerary also meant first lady Michelle Obama and daughters Malia and Sasha would no longer accompany the president abroad, despite the fact that the trip had been scheduled to coincide with the girls' spring break.
Obama had hoped to show his family his boyhood haunts in Indonesia, where he spent four years after his mother married an Indonesian man. A bronze statue of a 10-year-old Obama was recently erected at the elementary school he attended.
During his two-day stop in Jakarta, Obama will meet with Indonesian President Susilio Bambang Yudhuyono. In a separate appearance, he'll deliver his first address to the Muslim world since his historic speech in Cairo last year.
Obama will also spend a day in Bali, a well-known tourist destination that's been struck by deadly terrorist attacks. There he'll meet with civil society leaders and hold an event promoting the role civil society has played in Indonesia's emerging democracy.
The president's itinerary in Australia has been scaled back due to the delay in his departure. He'll no longer visit Sydney, where his family was expected to do some sightseeing, and instead stop only in Australia's capital, Canberra. He'll meet with Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, with whom he shares a close relationship on the issues of climate change and the war in Afghanistan.
Obama will address Australia's parliament and mark the 70th anniversary of relations between the U.S. and Australia.
In some parts of Asia, the most carefully watched stop of Obama's trip will be the first, and the shortest — a speech he'll make to U.S. servicemembers stationed in Guam while his plane refuels before heading to Indonesia.
The tiny U.S. Pacific territory is at the center of a growing rift between Washington and Japan. Under a post-World War II pact, the U.S. has about 50,000 troops in Japan, most of whom are on the island of Okinawa. Both countries had agreed to close the sprawling Marine Corps Air Station Futenma and relocate 8,000 Marines to Guam.
While Tokyo's previous administration agreed to build a replacement for Futenma farther north on a less-populated part of Okinawa, Japan's new coalition government is divided over whether a base should remain in Japan at all. The U.S. says the transfer of Marines to Guam cannot move forward until the new site on Okinawa is finalized.
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