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Obama Asia Trip Yields Mixed Results

BY Larisa Epatko  November 19, 2009 at 1:30 PM EDT

President Obama and South Korean President Lee Myung-bak; AFP/Getty Images

President Obama wrapped up a 10-day tour of Asia on Thursday, producing little by way of short-term gains, but establishing relationships with Asian leaders for dealings down the road, observers say.

Mr. Obama’s trip, which he cast initially as a return to full U.S. engagement in the region, took him to China, South Korea, Japan and Singapore, where he participated in the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation summit. Issues on the agenda included climate change, nonproliferation, Afghanistan and the global economy.

He spent the most time in China, meeting with President Hu Jintao and Prime Minister Wen Jiabao, among other officials, over three days.

The leaders reportedly discussed the value of the Chinese currency, the yuan, which U.S. manufacturers say is kept artificially low, making Chinese exports cheaper and U.S. products sold in China pricier, thereby putting them at a disadvantage.

President Obama told the Chinese leaders that the United States wants to see progress on a range of economic issues, including making the yuan’s exchange rate “more flexible”, by the summer, when U.S. state and treasury secretaries plan to meet with their Chinese counterparts, U.S. Ambassador Jon Huntsman told Bloomberg Television.

But Hu did not mention the currency’s tie to the weakening dollar during a joint briefing following the bilateral meetings.

China is the biggest creditor to the United States, holding Treasuries worth $798.9 billion in September, according to Bloomberg News. Chinese Vice Foreign Minister He Yafei has said maintaining the exchange rate is helping stabilize global financial markets and the global economy, the news agency reported.

President Obama also broached the issue of human rights, saying “We do not believe these principles are unique to America, but rather they are universal rights and that they should be available to all peoples, to all ethnic and religious minorities.”

Hu said that both countries would hold more talks on human rights, but stressed that the two countries should treat each other as equals. “We will continue to act in a spirit of equality, mutual respect and non-interference in each other’s internal affairs,” he said.

“These things don’t change overnight,” David Axelrod, a senior adviser to Mr. Obama, said at the close of the trip, reported the Voice of America. “But certainly he made strong statements to a Chinese audience on a number of issues that are central to our values, and I think that will permeate over time.”

Elizabeth Economy, C.V. Starr senior fellow and director for Asia studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, said the Obama administration “correctly downplayed the expectation that there would be concrete deliverables” during the first major summit between Presidents Obama and Hu.

The real question regarding China, she continued, was whether the stage will be set for real cooperation in the future. As for the other Asian countries Obama visited on this trip, where he was able to lay more groundwork and be more visible to the public, he was able to reassert the U.S. presence in the region and establish relationships with leaders, Economy said.