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  • Jul 23, 2014
  • Updated: 5:27am
PUBLISHED : Sunday, 17 November, 2013, 3:20am
UPDATED : Sunday, 17 November, 2013, 3:20am

US 'tilting' away from Asian allies

Philip Bowring says domestic squabbles and a hapless president have dented America's standing both in Asia and elsewhere, in a year of foreign policy disasters

BIO

Philip Bowring has been based in Asia for 39 years writing on regional financial and political issues. He has been a columnist for the South China Morning Post since the mid-1990s and for the International Herald Tribune from 1992 to 2011. He also contributes regularly to the Wall Street Journal, www.asiasentinel.com, a website of which he is a founder, and elsewhere. Prior to 1992 he was with the weekly Far Eastern Economic Review, latterly as editor.
 

Last year, China's foreign relations sustained huge setbacks, especially in Asia, with its aggressive stances on the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands, the South China Sea, its border with India and lesser issues. It seemed that the domestic politics of leadership transition was taking precedence over sustaining the "peaceful" description of China's rise. Instead, it seemed to encourage America's "tilt" towards Asia and justify it in the eyes of many Asian partners.

This year, however, will go down as the year when US domestic politics undermined its own status not just in Asia but in much of the world, as a result both of the behaviour of its Congress and the inability of President Barack Obama to place US global interests ahead of short-term political considerations.

In its own tiny way, Hong Kong has had a similar experience this year to the US, and to China last year. Its grotesque behaviour in the Manila hostage case was driven entirely by local politics and prejudices, in the process damaging its reputation for being a fair-minded and open Asian city.

For the US in Asia, Obama's failure to attend the Asia-Pacific Economic Co-operation forum and related meetings in Asia had a huge symbolic impact. In the hothouse of Washington, loss of attendance at one of many summit meetings may seem trivial. Surely, it is argued, it would be worse if budgets were not passed or US debt went into technical default because of divisions in Congress?

But that misses the point of the true role of the president, which is to try to rise above such squabbles and speak and act for America's bigger interests. It is not even clear that the US public, which has a low opinion of its Congress, would have criticised Obama if he had taken off for Asia instead of spending his days on the phone to congressmen.

His absence was all the more evident given China's change of tone, at least towards the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (excluding the Philippines) and India, and the flurry of visits by sweet-talking diplomats in the lead-up to President Xi Jinping's attendance at the Brunei and Bali meetings. The friendlier face of China, as represented by the smiling Xi, would not have been so effective had Obama been a counter-attraction.

Nor was this just about appearances. A cornerstone of US policy in the region is its Trans-Pacific Partnership, partly a counterweight to China's regional trade agreements. But the trade partnership's prospects have been slowed or at least diluted by China's proactive moves in East Asia.

The weakness of US influence has even been seen in the petty quarrels of two of its major allies, Japan and South Korea, as the latter's president, Park Geun-hye, seeks to compensate for the role of her father, the late president Park Chung-hee, as an officer in the Japanese imperial army by stirring ill feeling towards Japan and encouraging relations with China. This does not help the US, to which they both look as their principal ally.

The Edward Snowden affair has also left a sour taste in the mouths of America's global friends. The brutal fact is that almost all America's friends were disturbed by the sheer extent of the snooping involved. It fits ill with America's image to be found doing all the things it accuses China and others of doing. Again, domestic politics seems to have made the US incapable of recognising the impact of its actions on its friends.

The Germans in particular had every right to be outraged by the US need to listen in to Chancellor Angela Merkel's phone calls. What could have been gained compared with the cost of discovery? The system is no longer about US national security. It is about an out-of-control system that offends almost all US allies and shows Obama as a captive of the system.

US influence in the Middle East has also been seen in decline. It is hardly Obama's fault that revolutions against long-established authoritarian regimes in Egypt and Syria have not turned out as hoped. They have merely exposed the ideological, religious and other divides in these societies which had long been suppressed by the former rulers. The worst that could be said of US attitudes and policies was that there, as in Iraq and Afghanistan, they showed a naive belief in the ballot box as a solution to political struggles in countries without the institutions and rules engagement to achieve the compromises necessary for democratic government.

The Obama administration could yet end the year on a better note if it could reach agreement with Iran. The deal, which seemed so close a week ago, is now in jeopardy. The precise reasons are unclear. But there seems little doubt that Secretary of State John Kerry and Obama have again been under the influence of America's least desirable allies, Israel and Saudi Arabia, one an expansionist, race-based state in breach of innumerable international obligations, the other an oppressive state with medieval laws and fount of oil-financed global dissemination of religious fanaticism.

Again, one wonders whether attitudes of an ignorant US Congress and a public long fed fantasies of Middle East history are undermining US foreign policy and America's broader reputation as a friend and ally.

Philip Bowring is a Hong Kong-based journalist and commentator

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This article is now closed to comments

MOSNT
"The worst that could be said of US attitudes and policies was that there, as in Iraq and Afghanistan, they showed a naive belief in the ballot box as a solution to political struggles in countries without the institutions and rules engagement to achieve the compromises necessary for democratic government."
This statement is naive or deliberately misleading. The US general public may hold those beliefs but US has a long history of supporting military dictatorships, from Saddam Hussein to Mubarak in the ME. The Iraqis forced elections on the US. In Afghanistan they hoped a weak puppet would be able to ensure their interests, but misjudged the situation. If they believed in democracy in Egypt they wouldn't be backing a military coup and they would not support an apartheid regime in Israel, one of the world's most oppressive dictatorships in Saudi, etc, etc.
dunndavid
The tilt has been towards enemies and away from friends of the US. Now the friends (Germany, France, Saudi Arabia, Israel) don't trust the U.S. and the enemies (Iran, Syria, Russia) don't respect the U.S.
skywalker
Always the same thing. Blame the USA for wrongdoing! Everywhere in the world, the Middle-east, Asia, Africa. But in the end it is everywhere and always the USA who are turning up and getting things straight and right.
Mr. Bowring, you should also point out that it is each and every individual Asian country who is responsible for seeking its own allies. The Philippines are seeking help from the USA. Maybe other Asian countries would prefer to come along with the generous help from the new Asian powerhouse China, after they submit to China's unconditional hegemony in the region and the see what will happen. I don't think that any enthusiasm will last for long.
john.lone.75
Old story, America has showed the ASEAN and the region America is a truely global superpower in a typhoon hard hitting Philippines. China was no where of sight with $100K of aid when Coca Cola, IKEA, and others companies hand out millions of each. China is a laughing stock of a nation does not has any trust from the region to lead and America power does not has a substitution.
MOSNT
The US won't deliver on its promises. In In Haiti, where US polices have caused so much misery, the army not aid turned up. Old story.
elliot.g.slack
No one ever blamed Russia or China when we caught them spying on the US
likingming
Because eveyone knows what both russia and china are doing. But most of us are deceived by the hypocriptic US.
caractacus
I think you somewhat overstate your case, Philip and miss the bigger picture.
Obama's domestic and foreign policy problems stem from the global economic shift following the reckless deregulation of Western capital markets from the 80's onwards. All the "patriotic" capitalists sucked the money out of their own countries to invest in the cheapest labour countries giving the best, short term return for their shareholders' buck, not planning for the long term nor, seemingly, caring that the West eventually lost tens of millions of manufacturing jobs and tens of millions more lost jobs in dependant service industries.
The consequent loss of tax revenue (unemployed people don't pay tax), the huge welfare bill and gigantic trade imbalances contributed to permanent budget deficits, unparalled in peace time, and known today as sovereign debt.
Meantime, in a stroke of true ideological and economic suicide, as if designed by an enemy of genius, Western economies enriched and empowered with their capital, technology and know how a totalitarian dictatorship in China, culturally and ideologically inimical to the West.
I am no communist or Marxist, but I can never forget Lenin's perceptive statement: "The Capitalists will sell us the rope with which we shall hang them."
jiawang@adb.org
Obama will do yet more damage to US foreign policy and image. He is truly incompetent.
caractacus
You speak as if all the problems the USA now has started since the beginning of Obama's Presidency and that he is to blame, which they certainly didn't and he definitely isn't. You cannot turn around a country's mistakes of 3 decades in 4 or even 8 years. Did George W. do better with his Iraq military adventure which today appears to have been cooked up to benefit the special interests within and around the White House? That was the start of the real damage to America's foreign image today.
Don't blame the son for the father's mistakes.

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