Obama's 100 days of eastern promise

PUBLISHED : Monday, 27 April, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 27 April, 2009, 12:00am

As the strategic assumptions that have governed the region for decades start to shift, a mere 100 days in the life of a US president arguably counts for little. But, for all that, US President Barack Obama has worked swiftly to put flesh on the bones of his campaign promises - seeking to further broaden the Sino-US relationship while quietly re-energising traditional alliances, particularly with Japan.

The rest of the year looks set to amplify those moves, with Mr Obama's planners preparing for his first trip to East Asia.

The Democrat walked away from a successful first bilateral meeting with President Hu Jintao in London with an invite to Beijing - a mission that may be combined with his scheduled appearance at the Asia-Pacific Economic Co-operation Forum in Singapore in November.

Such a mission could also be linked with a much-anticipated trip to Indonesia, where he lived as a boy - all part of the multicultural background that created his unique appeal. Indonesia will be crucial to another plank of the Obama mission's inclusive foreign policy - his attempt to better engage the Muslim world after eight 'with us or against us' years of predecessor George W. Bush.

Obama advisers describe a steady-as-it-goes approach to East Asia - with North Korea being the one glaring exception. There is a determination to improve a host of relations - whether with China, Japan, South Korea, Thailand or Vietnam - while avoiding any new firestorms breaking out.

Between the domestic priority of forging a more sustainable American capitalism and the vexing foreign policy problems of an Iran determined to join the nuclear club and an unstable Afghanistan, he does not need any further trouble.

'If we are careful and responsive, East Asia could be an area that is an early success story,' one insider said. 'We have worked quickly to get to the personal relationships in train and let the big powers know we are listening and want to deal with them with respect. We know, too, they want us to fix our economy.'

He may also need more than that, they add. Both Beijing and Tokyo could play key roles in Iran, where both have commercial interests, and to a lesser extent in Afghanistan.

More visibly, Mr Obama needs Beijing and the rest of the region onboard in the diplomatic battle to get North Korea back to the six-nation agreement on its nuclear disarmament. Pyongyang has proved predictably unpredictable in staging a rocket launch, then withdrawing from its commitments and restarting its nuclear programme in protest against the UN Security Council stiffening sanctions.

In staging the launch, Pyongyang tested not only a rocket that could be used to deliver warheads, but also Mr Obama's relations with the other players, chiefly Beijing, Moscow and Tokyo.

While the economic crisis dominated the first days of his presidency, it was no accident that Mr Obama's first foreign guest in the White House was embattled Japanese Prime Minister Taro Aso. Mr Obama is apparently keen to dispel the view in Tokyo that US Republicans, rather than Democrats, serve Japanese interests better.

A robust approach to North Korea - in contrast to the last days of Mr Bush - has also helped win over a Japan ever paranoid of a North Korean attack. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton used her first visit in mid-February to hammer the point home, meeting the families of people kidnapped by the North Koreans in the 1970s. Yet the Japanese effort has not apparently been at the expense of an evolving relationship with Beijing.

Yu Wanli of Peking University said Mr Obama was the first non-confrontational president when initially taking office since the Sino-US ties were established 30 years ago.

'If I was to rate the performance of Mr Obama and his administration, I think 100 would not be an overstatement,' he said. 'Most US presidents were confrontational towards China when they first took office, but Mr Obama made it clear that he wanted co-operation with China.' Despite closer co-operation, Mr Yu said it was unlikely that China would replace Japan as the major US partner in the region because there was still a lack of 'common values'.

And there are difficulties. Prime Minister Wen Jiabao put the US on notice that China did not want its considerable US investments squandered by poor economic management, while Beijing's reluctance to slam Pyongyang for its rocket test irritated Washington. The standoff between the USNS Impeccable surveillance ship and mainland vessels off Hainan also highlighted the risk of tension.

Across the region, however, diplomats are quietly confident that the next four years at least will be a period marked by meaningful engagement, rather than dispute.

Greg Torode covered the 2008 White House race for the South China Morning Post.

Additional reporting by Kristine Kwok