On the security side, America formally joined the East Asia Summit (EAS), and Obama used his inaugural participation to steer this new body toward focusing on difficult, concrete security issues in the region, especially maritime security. This was not at all to Beijing's liking, but most EAS participants supported the overall American approach.
In short, Obama moved boldly to shift the center of gravity among the key multilateral organizations in Asia, favoring those that include the United States and leading them to take approaches favored by Washington but are neuralgic for Beijing.
Economics and trade. The Obama administration had a disappointing record on trade issues during its first two-and-a-half years in office. But in early November 2011 it finally achieved ratification of the free trade agreement with South Korea, and it then, as noted above, turned its focus to developing the TPP as a new trade and investment platform in the Asia-Pacific. This pair of initiatives has thrust Asia back into the center of U.S. economic and trade initiatives, in line with Obama's oft-repeated assertion that there is no region as vital as Asia to America's future economic prosperity. All this came amid rising economic and trade tensions with China -- tensions that are unlikely to subside during the coming year of electoral politics in Washington and succession politics in Beijing.
Security. Obama declared unequivocally on this trip that he will protect America's Asian security investments from any future cutbacks in overall U.S. military spending. In Australia, moreover, he signed an agreement to allow rotational deployments of 2,500 marines in Darwin. Following a trip by new Defense Secretary Leon Panetta a few weeks earlier to the region, the president left no doubt that the U.S. military and broader security focus was now shifting from Iraq and Afghanistan to Asia and that this new posture will remain at the top of America's security priorities and will be protected from any future defense cuts.
Democracy. A global democracy agenda had not been a prominent part of Obama's tenure, but this changed significantly with the 2011 Arab Spring. The president made clear on this trip that America will lead in Asia in promoting democracy and human rights, declaring in Australia that, "Other models have been tried and they have failed -- fascism and communism, rule by one man and rule by committee. And they failed for the same simple reason: They ignore the ultimate source of power and legitimacy -- the will of the people." At his final stop, Obama announced that Hillary Clinton would visit Burma (Myanmar) in early December -- the first U.S. secretary of state in 50 years to do so -- to take the temperature of new reformist stirrings there and encourage progress toward more democratic governance. The new comprehensive strategy, in short, elevated the democratic component of American diplomacy in Asia.
Most of the specific initiatives unveiled on the president's November 2011 trip had their antecedents in 2010 or before. But whereas previously the United States selectively pushed back when it objected to Chinese actions and focused great attention on managing the overall U.S.-China relationship, the November trip marked a significant shift. Washington is still very much focused on sustaining a constructive U.S.-China relationship, but it has now brought disparate elements together in a strategically integrated fashion that explicitly affirms and promises to sustain American leadership throughout Asia for the foreseeable future.