Obama to visit Asia with commitment to region as main focus

U.S. President Barack Obama is set to visit Asia next week on a tour aimed at allaying any doubts about his commitment to the region.

The trip, which will take him to Japan, South Korea, Malaysia and the Philippines, is unlikely to result in remarkable outcomes but taking clear positions on North Korea's nuclear programs and China's maritime presence should be a priority, commentators in Washington say.

Obama's administration has promoted its intention to focus on Asia as a top priority since 2011 but been criticized for failing to follow up on it in the face of more pressing issues such as unrest in the Middle East and the crises in Syria and Ukraine.

The U.S. government has used words such as "a pivot" and "rebalance" when explaining its new foreign policy focus, leaving many questions unanswered about exactly what they mean and what concrete measures will be taken.

"We will continue to focus on the Asia-Pacific," Obama said in the annual State of the Union address in Congress in January.

"In polite company people won't say it, but behind closed doors I think they'll openly ask where the pivot is...or the rebalance," Victor Cha, a former senior U.S. diplomat, told a recent forum in Washington regarding Obama's trip to Asia.

Cha, a professor at Georgetown University, said that strong messaging on the U.S. commitment to the region "is an important way to try to compensate or try to fill that gap."

In the first half of his eight-day trip starting Tuesday, Obama will focus on promoting a bilateral alliance between Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and South Korean President Park Geun Hye following their three-way summit in The Hague last month.

Obama brokered the first meeting of Abe and Park since the two took office in 2012 and 2013, believing that a thaw in the strained relations between Tokyo and Seoul is in U.S. interests in the Asia-Pacific region.

His administration has urged Japan and South Korea to enhance dialogue to ease tension over differing views of history related to Japan's 1910-1945 colonial rule of the Korean Peninsula and over the sovereignty of islets in the Sea of Japan.

Obama, who will be visiting Japan for the first time in three and a half years, will discuss with Abe bilateral and regional challenges such as the sticking points in negotiations for an early signing of a free trade pact covering 12 Asia-Pacific countries.

Differences between Japan and the United States, the two largest economies in the Trans-Pacific Partnership, mainly over the issue of market access, including Japan's tariffs on agricultural produce, are regarded as a stumbling block to early conclusion of the deal.

Mireya Solis, an expert on U.S. policy on Japan and East Asia at the Brookings Institution, said Abe and Obama should release a message at their summit that would be able to keep the other TPP negotiation partners committed to the initiative.

"I think that the TPP is a very important component of the rebalance," Solis said. "It's not just about military redeployment, it's also about constructing a regional economic, trans-regional economic architecture."

Solis said that the rebalance means the United States recognizes that its future very much lies in Asia as the world's most dynamic economic region and a region that has major security challenges with North Korea.

Cha said Obama's trip to South Korea and a meeting with President Park Geun Hye will be important in terms of "deterrence and defense" in light of the situation surrounding the Korean Peninsula.

North Korea recently threatened to conduct "a new form" of nuclear test and fired several hundred artillery shells near the de facto sea border with South Korea.

During an annual joint military drill by the United States and South Korea, North Korea fired a number of rockets and missiles including ballistic ones into the Sea of Japan.

In Malaysia, which is also seeking to join the TPP, Obama and Prime Minister Najib Razak are expected to discuss the ongoing negotiations for the U.S.-led deal and other economic topics.

Obama will be the first sitting U.S. president to officially visit Malaysia since Lyndon Johnson in 1966, according to Washington-based experts.

After moving to the Philippines, the last leg of his trip, Obama will discuss with President Benigno Aquino tensions with China over territorial rows in the South China Sea.

Obama earlier cancelled a trip to Malaysia and the Philippines, plus Indonesia and Brunei, planned for October to deal with a partial government shutdown over budget issues at home.