Obama leaves Asia reflecting on power shift
President Barack Obama leaves Asia today digesting complex new realities in a region where rising powers like China wield new influence and challenge American global dominance.world Updated: Nov 14, 2010 10:18 IST
President Barack Obama leaves Asia on Sunday digesting complex new realities in a region where rising powers like China wield new influence and challenge American global dominance.
Obama won hearts in India and made a poignant return to his boyhood home in Indonesia, but a G20 summit in Seoul exposed fierce criticism of US economic policies and power challenges by Beijing and some US allies.
US officials however trumpeted Obama's voyage as a roaring success, delighted by iconic footage of First Lady Michelle Obama dancing with children in India and Obama's deep bond with Indonesians.
"When historians look back on the trip to India and Indonesia... it will be one of those seminal moments, one of those iconic moments in the relationship between countries," said Tom Donilon, Obama's national security advisor.
But Obama also had an audience back home after his "shellacking" in mid-term elections, and his entourage bristled at US reporters who perceived a weakened president failing to conquer.
"In Asia, Obama's glow dims," reported the New York Times; Obama "limped" through the G20 summit in Seoul, according to the Wall Street Journal.
Seeing Obama's trip through a prism of Washington politics may obscure a deeper truth -- that after a decade of sapping wars abroad, crippling debt and an anaemic recovery, US power is not what it was.
US officials made great play of setting the agenda at the G20 summit -- but critics say the administration has recently struggled to drive sweeping aims towards adoption in international summits.
The failure to get the G20 to agree to binding restrictions on currency manipulation and trade surpluses was a case in point -- though Obama aides feel the group did shift in that direction.
Obama also faced severe criticism of the Federal Reserve's decision to pump 600 billion dollars into the US economy, which infuriated US partners like Germany and allowed China to claim Washington was manipulating currency rates.
However, following a summit with Hu Jintao in Seoul, officials expect progress on a rising yuan before the Chinese president's US visit in January.
Obama failed to deliver the biggest headline of the trip -- a landmark free trade accord (FTA) with South Korea that would have validated his decision to frame the journey as a job-creating mission.
Now Obama, who was to leave for home from Tokyo Sunday, will face doubts whether his free trade rhetoric is backed by genuine commitment.
"For Asia, trade and investment liberalisation has long been a key foreign and economic policy priority," said Daniel Price, who worked on G20 issues for ex-president George W. Bush.
"In the wake of the failure to close out the FTA in Seoul the US has indicated the deal can be done within the next few weeks, but expectations of a fundamental shift in the administration's trade policy are now diminished," said Price, now with the Sidley Austin law firm.
Obama did however deliver in India -- lining up 10 billion dollars in trade deals supporting 54,000 jobs -- in the most successful leg of his trip.
He expertly walked the diplomatic line between India and Pakistan and declared India was already a "risen" power.
His backing for India's quest to be a permanent UN Security Council member honored its emergence at little diplomatic cost to Washington.
"He left India on a high," said Teresita Schaffer, of the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
"Obama's three-day visit produced some real accomplishments that will put more substance into the increasingly important partnership."
Obama insists the United States will stay an Asian power -- but accepts rising nations will demand their due.
"We are a very large, very wealthy, very powerful country. We have had outsized influence over world affairs for a century now," Obama said in Seoul.
"You are now seeing a situation in which a whole host of other countries are doing very well and coming into their own, and naturally they are going to be more assertive in terms of their interests and ideas."
Obama also stressed shared values on democracy and tolerance with Indonesia and India -- implying Asia would do better to embrace this model than China's version of capitalism.
He welcomed China's rise but suspicions will linger that with its renewed regional engagement, Washington seeks a strategic bulwark against Beijing.
Obama's aides also still argue that Obama's biography as a Hawaii-born "first Pacific president" alone has reinvigorated US regional policy.
"He was speaking to over a billion people essentially in a few days. It was quite a remarkable piece of public diplomacy," said Ben Rhodes, a deputy national security advisor.
But critics suggest too much emphasis is placed on "biography as foreign policy" saying geopolitics is driven instead by hard calculations of national interest.
First Published: Nov 14, 2010 10:14 IST