Managing Expectations as Obama Heads to Asia


Courtesy of The Asia Society

NEW YORK, November 4, 2010 – US President Barack Obama is heading to Asia, where he will visit India and Indonesia and attend the G-20 Summit in Seoul, South Korea. Coming on the heels of a scorching rebuke in the US midterm elections, the trip may be seen by some as an unnecessary distraction or by others as a key moment for US-Asian relations.

“At a time when the world’s center of gravity is shifting eastward, President Obama’s critically important Asia trip will be an important statement of America’s renewed engagement in the region,” says Asia Society Executive Vice President Jamie Metzl.

How the president handles this delicate two-step will have significant implications for the future of relations across the Pacific. “With China’s influence surging and Beijing seeking to play a far more muscular role in the region,” Metzl continues, “many Asian countries are looking to the United States to balance China while at the same time not provoking unnecessary conflict.”

Obama’s first stop on the nine-day trip will mark his first state visit to India. While visiting India’s vibrant democracy could come in handy at this particular point in time, Asia Society President Vishakha Desai says, “it would be a mistake if the trip did not go beyond the usual platitudes about the potential of partnerships between the world’s oldest and largest democracies.”

Read Vishakha Desai’s Op-Ed

Writing from the Asia Society India Centre in Mumbai, Komal Hirandandani reports people have been working overtime to ensure a pleasant stay for the President. Efforts include scrubbing down streets, fixing potholes, diverting traffic, clearing omnipresent street hawkers, and, of course, cutting coconuts off from trees, lest one falls on the President. Meanwhile, two cities Obama will be visiting, Mumbai and Delhi, have been put on high security alert. Fears remain of a terrorist strike, like the incident in the Kashmiri village of Chittisinghpora, where 36 people were killed during former President Clinton’s 2000 India visit.

There are questions about how Obama will be received in India, where the mood “is not exactly positive,” says Asia Society Associate Fellow Sadanand Dhume. Reflecting India’s complex relationship with America, Dhume observes “people are upset about an American aid package for Pakistan, the cancellation of a proposed visit to the Golden Temple in Amritsar, queries about outsourcing to CEOs invited to a business summit, and perceived hostility toward India’s beloved IT industry.”

Moreover, according to Dhume, “a presidential visit is no longer a big deal for India.” This will be the third successive sitting president to make the trip, and though the Indian people are broadly pro-American, ruling elites and intellectuals tend to be much less so, in part a legacy of the Cold War. “There’s also a feeling in New Delhi of having been let down by Obama, especially after eight years of the Bush administration, perhaps the most pro-India government in U.S. history.”

The president’s visit to Indonesia, the world’s fourth most populous country, third-largest democracy, and home to the world’s largest community of Muslims, is part of a broader strategy to reinvigorate relations with the economically vibrant Southeast Asian region and comes as Indonesia is playing a larger role in global governance.

Pilloried for delaying his visit to Jakarta three time earlier this year (first to secure passage of the health care bill and later to deal with the BP oil spill), the administration was widely seen as having squandered an opportunity to capitalize on the Obama fever that swept Indonesia as a result of the four years that the president lived there as a child. But, explains Asia Society Associate Fellow Ann Marie Murphy, “coming now, after key aspects of the Comprehensive Partnership have been unveiled and recent events have highlighted Indonesia’s geo-strategic importance, the visit’s symbolism will serve to advance the many substantive interests shared by the US and Indonesia.”

Many believe Asians will welcome President Obama but caution that a weakened US president may face domestic exigencies at home and not be able to fully engage Asia. “His visits to Indonesia and India are already seen as being overdue,” says Asia Society Associate Fellow Simon Tay from Singapore. “Moreover, the sources of opposition seem to include anti-trade and anti-globalization sentiments often directed against China and others in a rising Asia. If so, US participation and economic cooperation with Asia may be constrained even if both Obama and Asian leaders wish it were otherwise.”

When Obama arrives in Seoul for the G-20 Summit meeting, he’ll be up against reports of looming “currency wars,” the growing drum-beat in support of potentially protectionist policies, the active withholding of rare natural resources for political reasons, fears of excess liquidity, and consistent failures by some of the biggest emerging countries to protect intellectual property rights. These issues Jamie Metzl believes contribute to “a mounting chorus of discord and international division that will need to be addressed by the G-20.”

“If President Obama and the other G-20 leaders do not develop and oversee the strict implementation of a broad agenda for more balanced, equitable, and sustainable global growth, the alternative is another recession or worse,” believes Metzl, who will be travelling to Seoul for the G-20 session, where Asia Society will release a new high-level task force report on Asian economic integration.


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