More Hope Than Change
Of course, global expectations were always going to be tough for Obama to meet. When he was elected President, much of the world, including Asia, considered Obama their leader too. From climate change to a dÉtente with Islamic nations, Asians hoped Obama would somehow solve a multitude of global problems. But there was no magic wand, nor has Obama’s connection to Asia translated into significantly closer ties. “Even though he grew up in Indonesia, Obama’s strength is as a local community activist, not as a foreign policy expert,” says Bara Hasibuan, foreign policy chief for the National Mandate Party, a member of Indonesia’s governing coalition. “So far, America’s policy of benign neglect toward Asia has continued.” For decades, many Asian countries – from Japan and South Korea to Thailand and the Philippines – were used to counting on an American big brother for everything from economic sustenance to military security. Now there’s a new top dog in town: China. Last year, Japanese Foreign Minister Katsuya Okada proclaimed that this “will be the age of Asia and in that context it is important for Japan to have its own stance, to play its own role in the region” – a role separate from that of the U.S. It’s no coincidence that such a sentiment was expressed precisely as China had overtaken the U.S. as Japan’s largest trading partner. Further south, China has surpassed the U.S. as ASEAN’s third largest partner in commerce after the E.U. and Japan. The Southeast Asian club has signed trade pacts with Japan, India, South Korea and, most importantly, China, paving the way for a regional economic bloc that could rival the E.U. Note that the U.S. isn’t involved. “If we are closer to China now, it is only because the U.S. has neglected us,” says Kavi Chongkittavorn, a Thai columnist who writes about foreign affairs. Wirjawan, the head of the Indonesian investment board, jokes that, “If I want to get Americans going, all I have to say is China’s interested in a deal and they don’t worry about the sanctity of contracts or other legal niceties.” The creation of an Asian trade alliance could place American big business at a disadvantage. Though U.S. companies have historically invested far more in ASEAN than China, the pace of investment has slowed in recent years as the U.S. is squeezed by Asian competition.
If Obama’s trip is meant to reassert American influence in the region, the President will also be mindful of Beijing’s mood. China was one of the few nations where Bush was genuinely popular, and Obama has had a tough time matching his predecessor’s success. In recent weeks China has attacked Obama for approving arms sales to Taiwan, which China considers a renegade province, and meeting with the Dalai Lama, whom Beijing accuses of masterminding a secessionist movement in Tibet. “The responsibility for the serious disruption in U.S.-China ties does not lie with China but with the U.S.,” snapped Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao during a March 14 press conference in Beijing. Days before, high-level U.S. diplomats had flown to the Chinese capital to address a wide range of issues, and over the past year American officials have taken pains to underscore just how vital China is to the U.S. But there’s a fine line between a show of respect and a full kowtow. “In many ways this helps give China an inflated sense of empowerment,” says Stephanie Kleine-Ahlbrandt, Northeast Asia project director for the International Crisis Group. During Obama’s first year, “America has played Mr. Nice Guy. China follows a different set of rules.”