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July 24, 2017

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With new term, Obama further sets Asian focus

WASHINGTON -- After a convincing re-election victory, President Barack Obama looks set for another four years of reorienting the United States toward Asia at a time of uncertainty over a rising China.

In his first foreign trip since Tuesday's election, Obama plans a historic visit to encourage reforms in Myanmar — seen as a key success during his first term — and will go to Thailand and Cambodia.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Defense Secretary Leon Panetta will also head to Asia this month. While the timing is coincidental — Obama is attending the East Asia Summit in Cambodia — experts saw a powerful sign.

"Actions speak louder than words; the visit shouts Obama's intent for a purposeful focus on Asia in his second term," said Ernie Bower of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, pointing out that the trip is the first by a president solely to Southeast Asia since the Vietnam War.

Obama spent part of his childhood in Indonesia and took office vowing to pay more attention to Southeast Asia, charging that the dynamic and mostly U.S.-friendly region had been neglected as George W. Bush's administration was absorbed by wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

"Though issues like Syria are not going to go away, the fact that the U.S. will not be at war by 2014 when it pulls combat troops out of Afghanistan should mean Asia can move up on the administration's second-term agenda," said Nina Hachigian, a senior fellow at the left-leaning Center for American Progress.

Obama initially focused on cooperation with China but later hardened his line, boosting the U.S. military role in the region as Southeast Asian countries and U.S. ally Japan accused Beijing of growing assertiveness in territorial disputes.

The U.S. election came just before China launched a once-a-decade leadership change, with Xi Jinping — whom the Obama administration has courted in a series of high-level meetings — set to succeed President Hu Jintao.

China had criticized Obama's rival Mitt Romney, who accused the incumbent president of being too soft on issues including human rights and especially trade practices such as Beijing's allegedly undervalued currency.

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