In the wake of the Democrats’ stunning losses in the November midterm elections, President Barack Obama turned, instead, to shoring up his legacy on foreign affairs. Immediately following the elections, the president began a week-long swing through Asia for a series of key summits and bilateral meetings that will have major implications for US trade policy, anti-climate change efforts, and labor rights.

President Obama kicked off the trip with a stop in Beijing for the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit, which brought together 19 of the 21 members of the economic community. It was the first APEC gathering held in Beijing, and the first that President has attended since 2011.

Stealing the headlines – apart from Russian President Vladimir Putin’s flirtatious overtures to Chinese First Lady Peng Liyuan – was the unexpected climate deal announced between China and the US. Reportedly in the works for nearly a year, the deal was hammered out in secret and included unprecedented commitments from both sides – commitments that may well face domestic opposition in both countries, but especially in the newly Republican US Congress.

In particular, the deal included China’s first ever formal commitment to reach peak carbon levels by 2030.

In the wake of the Democrats’ stunning losses in the November midterm elections, President Barack Obama turned, instead, to shoring up his legacy on foreign affairs. Immediately following the elections, the president began a week-long swing through Asia for a series of key summits and bilateral meetings that will have major implications for US trade policy, anti-climate change efforts, and labor rights.

President Obama kicked off the trip with a stop in Beijing for the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit, which brought together 19 of the 21 members of the economic community. It was the first APEC gathering held in Beijing, and the first that President has attended since 2011.

Stealing the headlines – apart from Russian President Vladimir Putin’s flirtatious overtures to Chinese First Lady Peng Liyuan – was the unexpected climate deal announced between China and the US. Reportedly in the works for nearly a year, the deal was hammered out in secret and included unprecedented commitments from both sides – commitments that may well face domestic opposition in both countries, but especially in the newly Republican US Congress.

In particular, the deal included China’s first ever formal commitment to reach peak carbon levels by 2030. Doing so will be, for a newly industrializing country like China, extremely ambitious, and the country’s leadership is already pursuing aggressive carbon trading programs in its major cities and regions. A nation-wide carbon trading scheme, or carbon tax, may also be in the works, and the government is pouring resources into developing renewable energy sources such as solar and wind power.

And for China, the emissions debate goes beyond the effects of climate change and relates directly to immediate quality of life issues. China’s major cities are already choked with pollution from factories and millions of new cars, and without major action the public health crisis will become untenable – indeed, authorities in Beijing had to declare a holiday and shut nearby factories so that the city would see blue skies for the APEC summit.

From the US perspective, President Obama built on existing climate efforts to announce a new target: that by 2025 the US would reduce carbon output to levels 28 percent below 2005 levels. That would be double the pace of current reduction efforts. Given the opposition in Congress to any sort of carbon regulation, the president has largely been forced to pursue his emissions goals through executive actions through the Environmental Protection Agency and other efforts - but it remains to be seen how Congressional Republicans may seek to undermine these new targets.

Meanwhile, getting less attention but also important was the implications of the summit for global trade. The APEC summit featured a “leaders meeting” of the countries currently negotiating the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal, or TPP.

The TPP is a trade agreement that the United States is negotiating with 11 other countries throughout the Asia-Pacific region – Australia, Brunei Darussalam, Canada, Chile, Japan, Malaysia, Mexico, New Zealand, Peru, Singapore, and Vietnam. It seeks to cut tariffs and set broader rules on issues such as intellectual property and state-owned enterprises, and apply to countries that account for nearly 40 percent of the world economy and one-third of global trade.

The biggest substantive hurdle involves the difficulties of the two main players, the US and Japan, who disagree over how the agreement should treat Japan’s heavily protected agriculture market.

However, post-APEC leaders are increasingly optimistic that the US-Japan issues are close to being sorted out. US Trade Representative Michael Froman has said that “the end of these landmark negotiations is coming into focus,” and the Republican takeover of Congress may well increase the odds of a deal getting done, given the party’s greater enthusiasm for trade.

President Obama’s subsequent trip to Myanmar (formerly Burma) and then to Brisbane, Australia for the G20 meeting of leading world economies rounded out a busy week of diplomacy. In particular, the president needed to strike a sensitive balance in Myanmar between showing support for that country’s moves towards democratic reforms, while also applying pressure on the government over continued rights abuses and labor issues.

Ahead of Myanmar’s 2015 elections, President Obama met with both the current leadership as well as Aung San Suu Kyi, the pro-democracy activist who had long been under house arrest by the military regime. Concerns remain over a provision of the military constitution that will bar Suu Kyi in particular for running in next year’s elections as a member of her National League for Democracy (NLD), as well as over the treatment of the country’s Rohingya minority.

But while Myanmar has, like many of its neighbors in Southeast Asia, long struggled with poor labor conditions, a new plan announced during President Obama’s visit will take concrete steps to change that. The initiative, created under the auspices of the International Labor Organization (ILO) and bringing together the governments of Myanmar, the US, Japan, and Denmark, aims to bring together businesses, workers, NGOs, and the government in order to strengthen Myanmar’s labor rights framework. In particular, the plan envisions a multi-year labor law reform and capacity building effort that will enhance the improvements already underway.

Coming near the end of a tough year for the Obama Administration – one which has seen a cascade of foreign policy crises as well as blowout electoral losses – the president’s trip made important progress on a range of key issues for the US and global economy. Despite the prominence on the agenda of conflicts elsewhere, the US “pivot” to Asia is still steadily – if slowly – underway.