Obama ticks the right boxes on Asia

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

US President Barack Obama can look back at his administration's first year of engagement with Asia with satisfaction. There were no serious missteps or opportunities lost. A sturdy platform has been created on which can be built solid relationships. The future will remain bright as long as policies continue to be carefully thought out and pragmatically implemented.

Obama faces many challenges, but Asia can't be counted among the most pressing for him. At home, approval ratings are plummeting due to high unemployment, concern about the economy and handling of divisive issues like health care reform and a troop surge in Afghanistan. But support beyond American shores remains high. There is much appreciation of the administration's multilateral approach towards foreign policy.

The right first steps were taken when US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton broke with tradition by making her first overseas trip to Asia rather than Europe. There could have been no better symbol of commitment. Clearly, the US was going to take the region seriously. Such has since been the case. The administration in July signed the Treaty of Amity and Co-operation in Southeast Asia peace pact, and in November Obama became the first American leader to attend a meeting of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations.

Obama took office promising change. A year is a short time in diplomacy, so key issues on which pledges were made - climate change, nuclear proliferation and the Middle East - remain elusive. One has been kept and delivered, though: a lifting in many regions of the cloud of anti-Americanism that his predecessor, George W. Bush, seeded and spread. The shift has moved some Asian nations, who have concerns about China's rise, closer to the US.

Relations between China and the US remain difficult, just as for every previous American administration. The nations have as many common interests as differences. Challenging times lie ahead. Nonetheless, under Obama, relations are off to a sound start.

The president's first trip to China in November did not go as smoothly as hoped. No significant deals were made and coverage of his visit was muted in the Chinese media. These are not worrying developments. The process of building ties must not be rushed.

No Asian nation has stronger ties with the US than Japan. The election win of the Democratic Party of Japan has strained the relationship. Uncertainty about US naval bases is rife and Japanese forces have been pulled out of a refuelling mission in the Indian Ocean helping the US-led war in Afghanistan. But relations are such that it is likely the disputes will be amicably resolved.

A trade pact under discussion with South Korea is nearer. The nuclear agreement struck with India has brought the nations ever-closer. A recent announcement that Washington will join the Trans-Pacific Partnership - a small group of countries including Singapore, Chile and New Zealand - opens the possibility of a platform of economic integration in the Asia-Pacific region.

North Korea and Afghanistan remain problematic. US involvement is crucial to ensure scrapping of the North's nuclear weapons programme. The region has an interest in the US-led coalition succeeding in Afghanistan. Obama's sending of another 30,000 troops to the conflict is a welcome sign of commitment.

Asia and the US need one another. Obama has shown he understands the importance of the region to his country and the world. But rivalries and sensitivities mean diplomacy has to take place in measured steps. The US leader has thankfully adopted the right approach and pace.