26 November 2009

Barack Obama in Asia
Scaling the Asian wall
Nov 19th 2009
From The Economist print edition

The president pays Asia the compliment of courtesy; rewards are not immediate

IT TOOK Barack Obama nearly a year in office to get to East Asia. When he did, it was for an intensivenine-day obstacle course, which he tried to negotiate with the placatory charm and openness to dialoguethat have marked his diplomacy. Unsurprisingly, it went down well, but produced little of substance.

The centrepiece of the trip was China, which he visited at a critical juncture in the world’s most importantbilateral relationship. China handled the visit with ambivalence. It was keen to encourage Mr Obama’sfriendly approach and his willingness to recognise China as a fellow great power. But it was also clearlynervous of a charismatic young president far better than China’s standoffish leaders at appealing toordinary citizens (“voters”, as they are known in America).

The courteous but rigidly formal reception afforded Mr Obama stood in sharp contrast to that given theprevious Democratic president to visit China, Bill Clinton, in 1998. Chinese television aired an interviewwith Mr Clinton and gave live coverage to his meeting with Chinese students and to a joint pressconference with President Jiang Zemin. With Mr Obama, Chinese officials were careful to limitopportunities for embarrassment. In Shanghai, Mr Obama staged what the Americans described as a“town hall” meeting with young Chinese. It was shown only on Shanghai television, along with a painfullyslow feed relayed through the internet.

Later, in Beijing, Mr Obama held a ritual meeting with reporters alongside President Hu Jintao. But unlikein 1998, no questions were allowed. Mr Hu grimly gripped his lectern as Mr Obama delivered a statementin which he spoke of the universality of America’s human-rights values. Mr Obama did not, however, seeminclined to goad his hosts at a time, as he put it, when the bilateral relationship “has never been moreimportant to our collective future”. The decade since Mr Clinton’s visit has seen a huge shift in the relativebalance of power. China’s hectic growth has made it an indispensable partner both in redressing globaleconomic imbalances and in curbing carbon emissions

Mr Obama’s trip predictably failed to produce breakthroughs on either issue, though a lengthy jointstatement outlined measures to step up co-operation on developing clean energy. Mr Obama alluded tohis hope that China’s exchange rate might become more market-driven, but there was no hint ofagreement. One new area of co-operation is in outer space. The two countries declared a plan to open adialogue on manned space flight, hitherto resisted by America because of the strong military links toChina’s manned space programme.

The two sides announced that they would hold another dialogue on human rights by the end of February,their first such discussions in nearly two years. The dialogue has been sputtering on and off for nearly 20years. But as usual during American presidential visits, China this week tried to keep dissidents out ofsight. Several were reportedly rounded up by the police before the trip.

Officials displayed similar nervousness in their preparations for the “town hall” meeting in Shanghai.Chinese participants were coached beforehand on how they should pose their questions. They were alsocarefully selected. Many were members of the Communist Youth League, an organisation that groomspotential party members. America, Mr Obama said, would “always speak out” for its core principles. But ashe also said, “more is to be gained when great powers co-operate than when they collide”.

Bow row

A similar concern for avoiding head-on clashes marked Mr Obama’s time in Tokyo on November 13th-14th. For seething American nationalists, his only achievement there was to embarrass the nation bybowing to Emperor Akihito. There was all the customary talk-show outrage over what much of the rest ofthe world would view as a gesture of cultural courtesy.

The Japanese saw his trip differently. In Tokyo, Mr Obama made one of his main foreign-policy speechesso far, laying out his vision for America’s deeper engagement with Asia and styling himself as America’sfirst “Pacific president”. Throughout, it was peppered with gushing references to Japan—delighting acountry that fears it has fallen into China’s shadow.

This amounted to a well-crafted appeal to the Japanese people, in case the government they recentlyelected seeks to put more distance between their country and America. Yukio Okamoto, a former specialadviser to two Japanese prime ministers, thought the visit “brilliant”, in “consolidating the popular feelingthat the United States is a friend to Japan”.

The potential strains in America’s relationship with Japan are easy to see. The biggest is the fate of anAmerican helicopter base on Japan’s southern island of Okinawa. The new government of Yukio Hatoyama,the prime minister, is keen to review a bilateral agreement reached in 2006 that would relocate the basewithin Okinawa. The Obama administration believes the treaty should largely stand.

In Tokyo Mr Obama and Mr Hatoyama promised to “move expeditiously” to settle the matter. OnNovember 17th the two governments began high-level talks, which officials privately said were aimed atreaching agreement this year. Yet Mr Hatoyama has made clear that he does not understand the word“expeditiously” to bind him to a specific timescale. This puts him at odds not just with the Americans, butwith his own foreign minister, Katsuya Okada, who is taking part in the high-level talks.

As soon as Mr Obama had left Japan, Mr Okada travelled to Okinawa to see for himself how the islandersview the base treaty. Mr Hatoyama is likely to be sensitive to the feelings of Okinawans, many of whomoppose it and want the helicopters moved off the island altogether. But mainland Japanese may now bemore sympathetic to the treaty, especially having heard from Mr Obama’s own lips how important hebelieves it is for America’s—and Japan’s—security.
From Japan Mr Obama flew to Singapore, for a regional summit in need of reassurance about America’srenewed commitment to Asia and the Pacific. He attended a meeting of South-East Asian leaders thatincluded Myanmar’s prime minister—the first such high-level contact with the Burmese junta in fourdecades.

There is no pariah it seems, with whom Mr Obama is not prepared to risk dialogue—even North Korea,which has long hankered after the kudos of bilateral talks with America. But the willingness of hisadministration to talk to Kim Jong Il’s nuclear-armed thugs jangles some nerves in South Korea, the laststop on Mr Obama’s Asian tour. There is also frustration in Seoul that a free-trade agreement between thetwo countries languishes in America’s Congress. Differences, however, were brushed aside during MrObama’s visit. South Korea is probably not too alarmed at Mr Obama’s penchant for conciliation. It knowsthat Mr Kim is a past-master at proving the limits of dialogue.