Promoting American trade, President Barack Obama on Friday presided over a deal that will send Boeing planes to an Indonesian company and create jobs back home, underscoring the value of the lucrative Asia-Pacific market to a president needing some good economic news.
Mr. Obama stood watch as executives of Boeing and Lion Air, a private carrier in Indonesia, signed a deal that amounts to Boeing’s largest commercial plane order. Lion Air ordered 230 airplanes, and the White House said it would support tens of thousands of jobs in the U.S.
The U.S. president, eager for results to show for his diplomacy here, called the move “a remarkable example of the trade, commercial and investment opportunities that exist in the Asia Pacific.” Jobs and the state of the economy are defining Mr. Obama’s re—election bid.
Mr. Obama dived into a day of diplomatic meetings on the sidelines of summits with Asian leaders. He began with Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, with whom Mr. Obama has developed a close relationship. He later met with Philippine President Benigno Aquino III.
Mr. Obama made a point of meeting with Dr. Singh in Bali as part of his mission to devote attention to India, which the administration wants to play a larger role in Asia as the world’s largest democracy. In brief remarks to reporters, Mr. Obama and Dr. Singh hailed the importance of their nations’ work together in such areas as maritime security and the effort to stop the proliferation of nuclear weapons.
“I’m very happy to report to you there are today no irritants whatsoever in our working together in a multiplicity of areas both bilateral, regional and global,” Dr. Singh told Mr. Obama, who visited India last November.
The U.S. president was appealing to nations large and small for help with the America’s security agenda, anxious to build some regional political balance to the rising might of China.
He hopes to emerge with some progress over the hotly contested South China Sea, one of the most vital shipping channels in the world.
Mr. Obama’s Asia-Pacific tour has now brought him home twice first to Hawaii, where he was born, and now to the Indonesia, a nation of thousands of islands where he spent years as a boy. His stop in Bali is driven by his promise to be the first American president to take part in the East Asian Summit, a forum he wants to elevate as a force friendly to American interests.
Mr. Obama told Dr. Singh that the summit provides “the premiere arena for us to be able to work together on a wide range of issues,” including maritime security and nuclear non-proliferation. And he told Aquino that the U.S. and the Philippines have a 60-year alliance “that assures we are looking out for each other when it comes to security.”
Mr. Obama arrived in this resort island late Thursday from Australia, where he announced a new military presence and sent Beijing a message that America “is all in” across the Asia-Pacific. The White House is determined to show that American leadership here, far from home, is wanted after a decade in which wars in Iraq and Afghanistan dominated attention.
The United States needs help from the region, too both in bolstering the stalled American economy and in cooperating over threats from piracy to nuclear proliferation.
More broadly, Mr. Obama’s presence is meant to try to lift up the regional power structures here and insert the American voice more than ever.
He will attend a meeting with the heads of the Association of Southeast Asia Nations, or ASEAN, whose 10 members include host Indonesia, Vietnam, Singapore, Thailand and Malaysia. The group will expand for the East Asia Summit, a forum that also counts China, Japan, South Korea, India, Australia, New Zealand, Russia and the U.S. as members.
Looming over everything, as is usual with a presidential to this part of the world, is China. Its economy and military growth give it growing clout on the world stage.
The United States has no territorial claim but an enormous stake over the South China Sea, where disputes run deep.
Four ASEAN countries Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam lay claims to the region believed to be rich in oil. China and its rival Taiwan are the other claimants.
Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton signed a declaration with her counterpart from the Philippines this week calling for multilateral talks to resolve maritime disputes such as those over the South China Sea. China wants them to negotiate one-to-one and chafes at any U.S. involvement.
The summit talks will be judged in part over whether any progress in made in resolving the maritime disputes.
U.S. officials are quick to note the importance of the South China Sea, where $1.2 trillion in U.S. trade moves annually, according to Adm. Robert Willard, head of the U.S. Pacific Command. Briefing reporters travelling with Obama this week, Willard called it “a vital interest to the region, a national interest to the United States, an area that carries an immense amount of commerce and an area in which we must maintain maritime security and peace and not see disruptions as a consequence of contested areas.”
Leaders of smaller Asian nations are increasingly alarmed over China’s claims to maritime passage and rich oil reserves in the South China Sea.
The big news of Obama’s trip so far was the establishment of a Marine presence in northern Australia to give the U.S. more power in the region and ability to respond to crises.
On Thursday, China was muted in its public response, saying only that more robust American ties to Australia should not harm other countries. “China has no opposition to the development of normal state-to-state relations,” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Liu Weimin said in Beijing. “We also hope that when developing normal state-to-state relations, one should take into consideration the interests of other countries as well as the whole region and the peace and stability of the region.”
Behind the scenes, however, the more assertive U.S. policy toward China was setting Beijing on edge. The government’s Xinhua News Agency said the U.S. feels threatened by China’s rise and influence in Southeast Asia and said Mr. Obama’s goal was “pinning down and containing China and counterbalancing China’s development.”