Obama begins 3-day, 3-country southeast trip in Thailand
U.S. President Barack Obama, left, tours the Wat Pho Royal Monastery with Chaokun Suthee Thammanuwat, Dean, Faculty of Buddhism Assistant to the Abbot of Wat Phra Chetuphon, in Bangkok, Thailand, Sunday, Nov. 18, 2012. (AP / Carolyn Kaster)
BANGKOK -- U.S. 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.
Obama landed in Bangkok Sunday afternoon, greeted by 40 saluting military guards who flanked both sides of a red carpet.
His schedule is packed with sightseeing, a royal audience with King Bhumibol Adulyadej, a private meeting with Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra, a joint press conference and an official dinner.
On a steamy day, Obama began with a visit to the Wat Pho Royal Monastery, a cultural must-see in Bangkok. In stocking feet, the president and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton walked around a golden statue of a sitting Buddha. The complex is a sprawling display of buildings with colorful spires, gardens and waterfalls.
Obama is also visiting Myanmar and Cambodia in his first trip abroad since winning a second term.
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 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 traveling with the president aboard Air Force One.
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 Obama's so-called pivot to the Asia-Pacific region.
Obama's trip comes on the heels of meetings in Thailand between Secretary of Defense 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, Obama's national security adviser, Tom Donilon, said in a speech ahead of the trip last week that Obama would build on Panetta's outreach to reinforce the relationship and "support the continued peaceful restoration of democratic order after a turbulent period."
After his time at the temple, Obama paid a courtesy call to the ailing, 84-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 centrepiece of the Asia trip comes Monday when Obama travels to Myanmar, the once reclusive and autocratic state that has begun instituting democratic measures. Obama has eased sanction on the country, also known as Burma, and his visit will be the first there by a sitting U.S. president.
Obama aides see Myanmar as not only a success story but also as a signal to other countries that the U.S. will reward democratic behaviour.
"If Burma can continue to succeed in a democratic transition, then that can potentially send a powerful message regionally and around the world...that if countries do take the right decisions, we have to be there with incentives," Rhodes said.