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Obama Wraps Up Vietnam Visit; Heads To Japan


President Obama left Vietnam for Japan this morning. But first, he held what has become a signature event of foreign presidential travel. It was a town hall-style meeting with young people in Vietnam. In a country most Americans associate with a past war, Obama told the audience to look to the future.


PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Two thirds of you were born after 1975. As I often say to young Americans back home, your generation can look at the world with fresh eyes.

GREENE: The president himself has been trying to do just that with what the administration has called its Pivot to Asia. And we're going to talk now with one of the people who helped craft that policy. Evan Medeiros was Obama's chief advisor for Asia on the National Security Council. He now heads Asia research at the Eurasia Group. Mr. Medeiros, good morning.

EVAN MEDEIROS: Good morning, David. It's great to be here.

GREENE: Can you just describe to us what you see as a pivot here? Why use that word?

MEDEIROS: Well, the meaning of the word pivot is that the United States should spend more time devoting energy, resources, mind share to growing its economic, political and security ties with the Asia-Pacific. It's based on the belief that the United States was spending an excessive amount of time on other parts of the world. So it's about aligning U.S. activities with U.S. interests.

GREENE: You say security interest. I'm just curious to know what exactly you see as U.S. security interests in the region.

MEDEIROS: Well, the United States has five treaty allies in the Asia-Pacific. There are a variety of threats to U.S. security and the security interests of our allies like on the Korean Peninsula. There's a variety of territorial disputes that challenge the interest of U.S. allies like Japan and the Philippines. And then there are a variety of nontraditional security issues - counterterrorism, counterpiracy, responding to humanitarian disasters, climate change - that all affect American interests in the region.

GREENE: If we get to some of the specifics here, we have the president lifting this weapons embargo to Vietnam. I also think about the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the TPP, this trade deal that has been, you know, very controversial. There's a Republican Congress that isn't so fond of this trade deal. You have two presidential candidates Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton who both oppose the TPP. I mean, can you blame some people in the region for being skeptical that this pivot is all that huge?

MEDEIROS: Well, I think that there's a - in the history of U.S. engagement with the Asia-Pacific, there's always been a question about the degree of America's commitment and U.S. reliability. So you simply have to price that into the broader dynamic of U.S.-Asia diplomatic interactions. And that's going to be with us for a very, very long time.

What's so important about the pivot is that the administration has demonstrated that there's a consistency to what the U.S. is doing. In other words, this is not a fad. This is a reflection, a recalculation of where American economics and security interests lie.

GREENE: Why are there people in the region who think the U.S. is unreliable?

MEDEIROS: If you look at the history of U.S. engagement in the Asia-Pacific, it's been episodic over time, such as the U.S. withdrawal after Vietnam, debates about the degree of U.S. commitments to Korea and Japan, the fact that we have a major presidential candidate that's talked about allies that need to, you know, carry a bigger part of their defense burden.

GREENE: Well, what do you make of that? I mean, Donald Trump has basically made the argument that it's not fair that the United States do so much to secure these countries if countries like Japan are not sort of ponying up more money on their own. I mean, does he have a point?

MEDEIROS: Well, I think he underappreciates the contribution that these countries make. I mean, the host nation support from both Japan and Korea is actually quite substantial. In particular, when Prime Minister Abe visited the United States in 2015, the U.S. and Japan renegotiated the bilateral defense alliance commitments in a way in which Japan assumed a greater, sort of, share of the burden for activities in the alliance. That's significant.

GREENE: Do you blame some Americans for looking at the world today and threats like ISIS and wondering why a president would be spending so much time in this region?

MEDEIROS: Well, I think it's important to keep in mind that, strategically, the U.S. can walk and chew gum at the same time. And of course, you know, ISIS and countering terrorism is a very, very serious threat. But that doesn't need to displace U.S investment in its long-term economic and security interests. And that's fundamentally what the Asia-Pacific pivot is all about.

GREENE: OK. We've been speaking with Evan Medeiros. He's director of Asia research at the Eurasia Group. Mr. Medeiros, thank you so much for talking to us.

MEDEIROS: Thank you, David. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.