Barack Obama

Obama must win over the sceptics

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 07 November, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 07 November, 2009, 12:00am

A year ago this weekend, US President Barack Obama was celebrating an election victory based on a clarion call for change, and a striking ability to convince American voters to embrace it. Yet as he approaches his first trip to East Asia, he must confront scepticism and changes of a different sort - and not all that serve American interests.

Obama is arriving in a region where China's rise is rapidly changing the strategic assumptions that have governed stability for decades, where a new left-leaning government in Japan is creating headaches for its old ally the US, and where North Korea remains predictably unpredictable. Then there are the diverse nations of Southeast Asia, where many have for years felt neglected by Washington.

On the one hand, many in the region are looking for Obama to show verve and nuance as he deals individually with a range of powers whose relationships are increasingly inter-linked and complex. His dealings with new Japanese Prime Minster Yukio Hatoyama, for example, will have a bearing on his first state visit to China a few days later and dealings with President Hu Jintao .

Others, meanwhile, are also looking for Obama to make an over-arching statement of his vision for relations with East Asia. Few politicians can deliver a vision quite like Obama, yet it remains a tough selling job.

He must convincingly re-engage a sceptical region even when his in-tray is filled with other priorities, from re-making the US economy to the potential military quagmire in Afghanistan and an elusive peace in the Middle East.

'He definitely faces a complex series of issues and relationships in his first visit, but maybe we will be surprised,' said veteran regional analyst Robert Broadfoot, of the Hong Kong-based Political and Economic Risk Consultancy.

'Moving things forward out here may just be do-able compared to the problems he's faced with elsewhere. Maybe he can broaden and deepen the relationship with China, and at the same time promote the alliance with Japan and get more co-operation generally over North Korea.'

As well as the troubled effort to get Pyongyang back to negotiations, other specifics include easing trade tensions while boosting environmental co-operation with Beijing, and moving the relationship with Hatoyama beyond recent friction over the continued deployment of US forces in Japan. He must also nudge China towards policies that will open the wallets of Chinese consumers across its vast market.

Broadfoot also spoke of the need to confront the consensus across the region that China is rising just as US clout is weakening. 'A large part of his trip will be to overturn these perceptions that the US is weakening, which I don't think are correct, given many fears about China. He can say to the Japanese, for example, that he wants a more equal relationship, not as a sign of weakness, but of confidence.'

The view is echoed among Southeast Asian diplomats, who warn privately that the United States risks losing an opportunity as their region quietly reaches out to Washington again, sensing a harder edge to China's previously vaunted soft power.

'Many of us sense a need that it's time to rebalance relations with the US ... we're open to US engagement and leadership in all sorts of ways,' one veteran Southeast Asian envoy said. 'There is a real chance here for Obama if he provides reassurances of US commitment.'

Obama administration officials say they are well aware of this, pointing to earlier comments from Obama's Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton that the US was 'back' in the region after eight years of a Bush administration whose attentions were diverted elsewhere.

They will be seeking to capitalise on the first summit between a US president and the 10 state leaders of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations - an event planned for the fringes of the annual Apec summit in Singapore next weekend. Obama visits Singapore after first stopping in Tokyo. After Apec, he heads to Beijing and Shanghai before stopping in South Korea on his way back to Washington.

Dr Ian Storey, a fellow at the Institute of Southeast Asia Studies in Singapore, noted that American influence was rising in all manner of quiet ways, from the forging of new military ties with Vietnam and decisions to keep US marines in the southern Philippines to the return of the US Agency for International Development to Thailand. Obama's high-profile efforts to reach out to the Muslim world with his historic speech in Egypt was welcomed in the Muslim-majority states of Malaysia and Indonesia. Naval ship visits continued apace to ports in Singapore, Thailand and Hong Kong, and more discreetly Malaysia.

Perhaps the most visible sign of re-engagement is the effort to talk to Myanmar's recalcitrant ruling generals - a move that speaks directly to Obama's election vow to forge a new era of responsive US diplomacy.

No one is expecting this week's visit to Myanmar of Kurt Campbell, assistant secretary of state for East Asia and Pacific affairs, to spark overnight changes, but it would have been widely respected across Southeast Asia, Storey said. 'It is a clear sign that the Obama administration is prepared to risk something new, and I think the region will respond to that. Asean, of course, has long been pledging a pro-engagement line.'

The visit also cleared a path for the summit, avoiding any shock that would have earlier surrounded Obama appearing in the same room as junta chiefs.

Much less tangible, of course, will be the way Obama's charisma and political star quality is received across the region. Even while he has struggled with domestic issues in his first nine months in office, the 'Obama factor' has continued to woo crowds in the Middle East and across Europe.

Yet both polls and anecdotal evidence suggest much of the region is not only more considerably sceptical, but that his mantra of 'change' has clouded US intentions and old certainties towards the region. His predecessor, George W. Bush, for example, considered East Asia one of his diplomatic success stories, despite intense unpopularity elsewhere.

'Obama's celebrity status will be a plus for him, but Asians are going to be more pragmatic in dealing with him,' said James Mann, a scholar at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies in Washington.

Pragmatism and scepticism that show, perhaps, that when it comes to Washington's dealings across East Asia, the more things change, the more they stay the same.




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