Obama snub echoes the insults of history

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 24 March, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 24 March, 2010, 12:00am

US President Barack Obama has made a serious mistake in postponing - twice - his state visit to Indonesia. Obama, his political advisers and the pundits of Washington are seemingly unaware of the far-reaching effects of the snub to Indonesian national pride.

Spokesmen for President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono sought to downplay the rebuff, saying their president looked forward to leisurely conversations with Obama in Jakarta in June.

The immediate consequences appeared to include a setback in Obama's effort to communicate with Muslims, Indonesia being the world's most populous Islamic nation. Indonesia is arguably the most influential member of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, and the postponement has probably damaged the United States in its dealings with that organisation.

Indonesia's strategic location alongside the Strait of Malacca and the South China Sea, through which more ships pass than through the Panama and Suez canals combined, has made Jakarta the object of quiet but assiduous US efforts to encourage operations against pirates and terrorists. Postponing the state visit at the last minute may well have undercut those efforts.

But the deeper and more subtle consequence is the message sent not only to Indonesia but to all Asian nations that have spent the past 50 years shucking the effects of 501 years of Western colonial domination. The message of the abrupt, ill-mannered Obama postponement, in its rawest form, says to Asians: 'You don't matter as much as we do.'

The legacy of that anti-colonial drive has been the emergence of a robust nationalism that seeks, more than anything else, to be respected by Asia's former colonial masters.

Kishore Mahbubani, a Singaporean diplomat and scholar, wrote some years ago that Europeans and Americans have a hard time understanding this because 'their minds have never been wrapped in the cellophane of colonialism'.

The colonial period in Asia started in 1498 when the Portuguese explorer Vasco da Gama landed on the coast of India and ended in 1999 when the Portuguese colony of Macau reverted to China. In between, Britain colonised much of South Asia while the French came to rule Indochina and the Netherlands controlled what was called the Dutch East Indies, now Indonesia, for 350 years.

The US in the Philippines, and Japan in Taiwan and Korea, were latecomers to the colonial game, in the 19th century.

After the second world war ended in 1945, one Asian nation after another became independent, some peaceably, others violently. The Vietnam war was, in some ways, the last of the anti-colonial wars.

Today it is this Rising East, with its nationalism and economic, political and military power that Americans ignore or refuse to acknowledge at their peril. Obama's sudden decision to put off his journey was not the act of a statesman intent on coping with a surging Asia.

Richard Halloran is a former New York Times foreign correspondent in Asia and military correspondent in Washington