President Obama is in the midst of a trip (picture courtesy of the Economist) to Asian states as a part of the administration's attempt to better engage with many states that have been all but ignored by previous administrations. One is the state of Myanmar, whose junta has held the leader of a democratic movement. Though mispronouncing her name, Obama urged the nation to let her go but did not address greater concerns that Myanmar may threaten within ASEAN, probably in part as an effort to minimize backlash at least until he returns stateside.
Also, in the two stops thus far (Tokyo and Singapore), Obama stressed that relations with the region, particularly China, don't have to be a zero-sum game, and that in fact America does not fear China's rise. As he has done countless times in the past, the President has focused on common interests - particularly the global economy and climate change with respect to China. This approach to foreign policy has brought criticism as Obama often ignores what many believe to be core American interests. He is expected to play down China's poor human rights record in order to focus exclusively on common economic interests. At his last stop in South Korea, Mr. Obama will dedicate more talk time to free trade (as well as North Korea), according to this story.
If the President really believes in achieving positive sum gains on both sides as a consequence of pursuing common interests, the administration should take the following steps. Engaging in a trade war with China (over tires, poultry, and other goods in the last two months) while advocating freer trade policies probably won't go over well. In fact, Mexico's Felipe Calderon criticized that recent U.S. trade policies are "going in the opposite sense of free trade." Many Asians agree, as The Economist states "a new engagement, however welcome, is not thought to be enough." Lowering unnecessary tariffs with our Asian allies and seeking free trade agreements with ASEAN nations would be the right step. Further, as a condition of such action, the U.S. could require the Chinese and Burmese to take action on certain issues such as human rights violations that the U.S. condemns. Such an end result would be more positive-sum than many policies followed thus far.