With eye on China, East Asia warms to Obama the listener

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 20 January, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 20 January, 2010, 12:00am

As George W. Bush surveyed the wreckage of his failed US presidency early last year, he considered his dealings with China and East Asia generally to be among the highlights. A year on, his replacement, Barack Obama, is in a similar predicament after one of the most bruising starts to a presidency in modern US political history.

Despite facing the in-tray from hell from his first day in the White House, Obama has managed to build solid foundations for re-engaging the region, even if the complex relationships with China and Japan remain, at best, works in progress.

The striking sense of American political renewal and purpose offered by Obama in his historic election victory may have dimmed domestically amid the business of governing, but it still flickers in parts of the region.

South Korea, Indonesia, Australia, Vietnam, Thailand and Singapore, among others, have all shown signs of quietly warming to Obama's re-engagement theme, in part to balance a more powerful China.

By putting his faith in diplomacy over hawkishness, Obama has won praise within the staterooms of the region, even if his stance has yet to yield results with North Korea and Myanmar.

Obama's approach to broadening and deepening relations with Beijing while defending Washington's core interests cannot be separated from his dealings with the rest of the region. It is neither the stuff of diplomatic fireworks nor bold headlines; nonetheless, it speaks to one of the great questions of the moment. The realities of China's rise mean nations are struggling to find ways of improving relations with Beijing while enhancing their ability to stand up to Chinese pressure when needed.

'There may not have been breakthroughs yet, but we have a sense Washington under Obama is listening again,' one veteran Southeast Asian diplomat said. 'That pleases everyone. We haven't felt that way for a long time.'

This sentiment is echoed widely across East Asia.

It is, of course, no accident. From the earliest stages of his long campaign for the presidency, Obama and his advisers recognised the need to continue broadening relations with China while simultaneously enhancing ties with old allies and newer friends. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was sent to a meeting of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations to declare that the US was back in the region - a clever piece of political theatre that obscured the fact that Washington never really left under Bush.

Then, on Obama's first mission to the region in November - marred though it was by difficulties in getting his message out in China and by a lonely appearance at the Great Wall - he repeatedly stressed the importance of Washington's long-standing alliances in the region. Those alliances ensure the US remains the largest military power in Asia, given its armed presence in South Korea and Japan. It won few headlines, but has been a stance that has resonated within the region since.

Clearly ignoring Beijing's repeated jibes about Washington's 'cold war mentality', he said America's alliances 'were not historical documents from a bygone era, but abiding commitments to each other that are fundamental to our shared security'.

On touching down in Tokyo, he said: 'The United States will strengthen our alliances, build new partnerships and we will be part of multilateral efforts and regional institutions that advance regional security and prosperity.'

For many analysts, it was a statement that overrode difficulties between Washington and Tokyo as the new government of the Democratic Party of Japan settles in after shattering the almost 50 years of dominance of the Liberal Democratic Party.

Ralph Cossa and Brad Glosserman, of the Hawaii-based Pacific Forum of the Centre for Strategic and International Studies, wrote this week that the US had generally improved its relations with East Asia under Obama. 'He seems to be practising what he preaches,' they said.

While widely criticised for not pushing China harder on human rights, Obama and his team were determined to create a framework to broaden the relationship - one in which problems in one area do not thwart progress in others. He also wanted to develop a solid personal bond with President Hu Jintao for the years ahead.

His team faced the fact that China's economic clout was vital at a moment of crisis and the reality that Beijing is not just aware of its rising power and influence, but is prepared to use it.

The first joint statement in more than a decade formalised a pledge for greater co-operation. Its value will be proven over the potentially thorny 12 months ahead. Although a state visit by Hu to Washington offers the opportunity to further buttress the relationship, arms sales to Taiwan and an expected White House visit by the Dalai Lama could rock ties.

Across the region, Obama will be hoping for continued quiet progress given his looming struggle to turn his four years at the helm into eight.