News that the U.S. would participate in the Trans-Pacific Partnership, joining Chile, New Zealand, Singapore and Brunei, was announced in Tokyo and Singapore, drawing applause at the annual Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum.

There have been concerns that the U.S., the world’s biggest economy, and other nations might turn inward as they grapple with the worst global financial crisis in decades. Obama’s move reinforced calls for expanding free trade rather than resorting to protectionist measures to cope with the recession. He pushed for progress on talks to liberalize world trade.

APEC, celebrating its 20th anniversary this year, was created to promote greater trade and integration among Pacific Rim nations from Chile to China. Its scope since has expanded to encompass a wide range of issues, including climate change, energy and food security, and politics.

Smaller Asian countries welcome the American attention, particularly as they grow increasingly concerned about China's expanding footprint in the region
Smaller Asian countries welcome the American attention, particularly as they grow increasingly concerned about China's expanding footprint in the region

Barack Obama will signal yet another break with his predecessor’s foreign policy this week when he takes his first presidential trip to Asia. While the Bush administration focused almost exclusively on the big players like China and India, Obama is very deliberately focusing on smaller countries as well. In addition to stops in China, Japan, and South Korea, Obama will make the first visit by a U.S. president to meet leaders of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations.

U.S. Trade Representative Ron Kirk urged APEC members to work together to stimulate recovery in a “balanced” way, a comment that hints at concerns over China’s export-reliant growth.,Singapore welcomed the U.S. announcement and said the TPP, which went into force in 2006, now has the potential to expand to an eight-member group, with Australia, Peru and Vietnam also expressing interest.

The longer-term goal is to expand the TPP to an agreement encompassing all 21 APEC members, dubbed the Free Trade Area of the Asia-Pacific, but Tay called it “early days” for progress on the broader pact.Despite the commitment to free trade, the U.S. Congress has balked at passing agreements with South Korea, Colombia and Panama negotiated under the previous presidency.

Obama’s trip to Asia follows visits Hillary Clinton has already made to leading ASEAN member states, including Indonesia and Thailand, and it comes immediately after Kurt Campbell, an assistant secretary of state, last week became the highest-ranking U.S. official to hold talks in Burma in more than a decade.

By comparison, Condoleezza Rice skipped two out of four ASEAN meetings. Douglas Paal at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace says that when Bush visited Indonesia after Sept. 11, he was “in and out as fast as he could” and focused almost exclusively in many countries on terrorism. As Bush came to dwell more and more on wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, Paal says, it started to send a message that the U.S. cared about these issues to the exclusion of all others.

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