President Barack Obama on Sunday launched a three-day Southeast Asia tour, hailing alliances with countries such as Thailand as cornerstones of the administration’s deeper commitment to the Asia-Pacific region.
While in Asia, however, Obama will be dividing his attention by monitoring the escalating conflict between Israel and the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip. Obama has been in regular contact with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu as well as with Egyptian and Turkish leaders who might hold sway with the Hamas leadership.
Mr. Obama landed in Bangkok on Sunday afternoon, greeted by 40 saluting military guards who flanked both sides of a red carpet.
The visit to Thailand, less than 18 hours long, is a gesture of friendship to a long-standing partner and major non-NATO ally.
Still, the two countries have faced strains, most recently after the 2006 military coup that deposed Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, and Mr. Obama’s visit offers an opportunity to restate and broaden the relationship.
“It was very important for us to send a signal to the region that allies are going to continue to be the foundation of our approach” to establishing a more prominent presence in Asia, deputy national security adviser Ben Rhodes told reporters travelling with the president aboard Air Force One.
Mr. Obama is also seeking to open new markets for U.S. businesses; the United States is Thailand’s third biggest trading partner, behind China and Japan. Becoming a counterweight to China in the region is a keystone of Mr. Obama’s so-called pivot to the Asia-Pacific region.
Mr. Obama’s trip comes on the heels of meetings in Thailand between Secretary of Defence Leon Panetta and his Thai counterparts on security and military cooperation on issues ranging from fighting weapons proliferation to disaster relief to countering piracy.
Alluding to the 2006 coup, Mr. Obama’s national security adviser, Tom Donilon, said in a speech ahead of the trip last week that Mr. Obama would build on Panetta’s outreach to reinforce the relationship and “support the continued peaceful restoration of democratic order after a turbulent period.”
Mr. Obama will visit the Wat Pho Royal Monastery, a cultural must-see in Bangkok, before paying a courtesy call to ailing 86-year-old, U.S.-born King Bhumibol Adulyadej in his hospital quarters. The king, the longest serving living monarch, was born in Cambridge, Mass., and studied in Europe.
The centerpiece of the Asia trip comes on Monday when Obama travels to Myanmar, the once reclusive and autocratic state that has begun instituting democratic measures. Mr. Obama has eased sanction on the country and his visit will be the first there by a sitting U.S. president.