Bangkok: President Barack Obama kicked off a three-country Asian tour with a visit to Thailand on Sunday, using his first post-election trek overseas to try to show he is serious about shifting the US strategic focus eastwards.
Obama’s itinerary will include a landmark visit to once-isolated Myanmar and an East Asia summit in Cambodia as he seeks to recalibrate US economic and security commitments to counter China’s influence at a time when America is disentangling itself from wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
But his attention will be divided during his travels as he faces a simmering crisis in the Gaza Strip pitting Israel against Hamas militants, plus economic problems at home.
In Bangkok, a monk in bright orange robes gave Obama and secretary of state Hillary Clinton a private tour of the centuries-old Wat Pho temple, taking them past its massive reclining Buddha.
Somehow, the fiscal problems back in Washington came up.
“We’re working on this budget. We’re going to need a lot of prayer for that,” Obama was overheard telling the monk, a light-hearted reference to a fiscal showdown in Washington over tax increases and spending cuts that kick in at the end of the year unless Obama and congressional Republicans can reach a deal.
Security had been tight at Bangkok’s old Don Muang airport for Obama’s arrival but was far less visible in the historic centre of the city at the temple, although roads around the building were closed and tourists were not allowed in.
From there, Obama left for an audience with King Bhumibol Adulyadej, 84, the world’s longest-reigning monarch, who has been in hospital recovering from an illness since September 2009.
The king’s softly spoken words made Obama smile at one point. “Elections in the United States are very long but it’s very gratifying to know people still have confidence in me,” the president responded.
“I thought it was very important that my first trip after the elections was to Thailand, which is such a great ally,” he added.
Obama’s convoy then drove to Government House, where he inspected troops as night fell. He was due to hold talks with Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra there and give a joint news conference with her.
The US administration regards Thailand as a key ally for advancing an “Asia pivot” that Obama announced last year with an eye to an increasingly assertive China. Obama, who was born in Hawaii and spent part of his youth in Indonesia, has called himself America’s first “Pacific president”.
His choice of Southeast Asia for his first foreign trip since winning re-election on 6 November is meant to show he intends to make good on his pledge to boost ties with one of the world’s fastest-growing regions, a strategy his aides see as crucial to his presidential legacy.
It is his second extensive trek through Asia in little more than a year.
In the centerpiece of his three-day tour, Obama will on Monday make the first US presidential visit to Myanmar, also known as Burma, another milestone in Washington’s rapprochement with the former pariah state, where a fragile transition is under way after decades of military rule.
Some international human rights groups object to the visit, saying Obama is rewarding the country’s quasi-civilian government before democratic reforms are complete.
Obama aides said the Myanmar trip was meant to lock in progress so far and that he will speak forcefully on the need to do more on human rights, especially to curb sectarian violence.