President Barack Obama represents in many ways the best things about America;
that is a factoid that stands out even in the dreary absence of concrete
achievements over the past two years.
In the humble opinion of this writer, he may or may not be seen as a successful
president of his country for what happens in the economy (I think not, but
while many neo-Keynesians like Paul Krugman think otherwise, that's a matter
for discussion another day). However, I cannot help but feel that the one area
where he is most likely to be seen as a failure would be in redefining the role
of the United States in Asia. All of the missed opportunities from his
presidency are likely to haunt America for many decades to come.
Admittedly this article is something that should have been aired in
late 2008 when he won the election to be the president of the US. The objective
of writing this nearly two years later is to present a progress report of
sorts; Obama faces the possibility of a "lame-duck" presidency if this year's
elections prove negative for his political party. In that event, I would very
much suggest that the president give up on a lost cause (re-election) and
re-engage on an important strategic priority - America's role in Asia.
A young, ambitious man who studies hard to be accepted into the best education
that can be earned; who spurns a career of money-making in favor of public
service and goes on to charge the batteries of a worn-out nation. That is a
great story unto itself.
His is not the story of immigrants - because he was born in the US to a Kenyan
father and an American mother - but more one of the dizzying array of
opportunities available to the young and the ambitious in the US. A region
steeped in traditions and rigid hierarchies would do well to take a few leaves
from the book of Obama; and particularly so if that region is to be the primary
(and perhaps sole) engine of the global economy in decades to come.
Cosmetically, the first thing that one notices about the Obama presidency is
the sheer shock it created in the minds of Asian leaders. As I explored in past
articles (eg More
racist than thou, Asia Times Online, January 11, 2008), the region is
well-known for an entrenched racism that has been directed in particular
against people of color.
A casual walk through the shopping malls of Asia, whether in Tokyo, Shanghai,
Hong Kong, Singapore, Mumbai, or Jakarta, reveals one interesting product that
stands out - the ubiquitous array of "fairness creams" that cater primarily to
the female demographic, although increasingly also to the male populations of
One only has to talk with people of color around Asia - whether it is in the
top cities or the second-tier ones - to discern the sheer level of racism that
pervades daily life. Some of it is subtle, but most of it is decidedly not. The
sheer scale of economic opportunities around the region, combined with the
clearly defined asymmetric risks of speaking out (polite for "the nail that
stands out is pounded down") mean that much of the entrenched racism is almost
never disclosed or discussed.
Obama by himself is unlikely to do much damage to the entrenched racism around
the region; but he is quite likely to help in many other matters. This article
is focused on the five most important economies of Asia and what greater
engagement from Obama might help achieve in this regard.
Every time anyone suggests that the moribund state of Japan's political system
couldn't possibly get worse, it immediately does. The perennial stasis of
political parties notwithstanding, the major dynamic of Japan remains the
family-based nature of the political classes.
Walk away from the politics and the world of business - dominated by the keiretsu
of old - is hardly any different. Stifling the flow of entrepreneurial capital
has long been a pastime of banks and the equity markets; the single-most
important change in the past 20 years in this system was America's dotcom
bubble, which at least ushered in a new class of businessmen (Softbank's
Masayoshi Son, who is of Korean descent, comes to mind).
The success of Renault's Carlos Ghosn in turning around a national symbol (and
by then national embarrassment) - the Nissan car company - sparked a range of
popular action that included the launch of comics detailing his moves, which
changed the direction of what had become a stodgy engineering company that had
lost touch with its customers.
That is exactly what greater exposure to Obama could help unleash for Japan - a
new dynamic that elevates the aspirations and confidence of a new group of
Japanese leaders; not associated with the stodgy old political dynasties but
who believe in focusing on making a new and dynamic Japan that projects its
politics as much as it does its economic clout.
Since the election of Bill Clinton in 1993, China has basically had an easy
ride through the political upheavals of America as the Asian country's
willingness to engage has been dimmed by its increasing economic power and
The area where Obama can make the biggest impact in China remains the pursuit
of democracy and human rights, topics that have been taboo to American leaders
for many years. The Communist Party has been allowed to maintain its
stranglehold on politics completely unchallenged for all this time. As various
incidents of late have shown - for example the tackling of Google, the
country's engagement with tyrannical and abusive regimes in Africa (a continent
with particular poignancy for Obama) - this is not a course of action that can
or will go unchallenged for too long.
Another area where China's youth would benefit from focusing on Obama's
experience would be in public service. All too often, Chinese columnists have
noted the general apathy of the country's young towards public service,
sacrificed for economic gains instead. The ability to attract more young
Chinese to the political sphere isn't a matter for Obama directly; even if it
does turn out to be an important side-effect of greater engagement with the
Instead of a direct confrontation that would eventually come about, greater
engagement of Obama in the affairs of China - for example by pushing aside the
efforts of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton - would likely bear fruit. The
young and the ambitious of China are hardly any different in their temperament
from Obama; unleashing their potential would be to the distinct benefit of not
just China but also, eventually, the United States.
No nation in Asia has been let down as much as South Korea in the past 10
years. Reduced American engagement in the region has basically allowed the
Korean situation to descend into a matter that is dominated by China, with the
active connivance of Russia. Without direct participation of its former
sponsor, the United States, South Korea has become increasingly desperate in
its dealings with the North.
Recent incidents, including the sinking in March of a South Korean naval ship,
have only highlighted the dangerous new realities on the ground in Asia; these
have been exacerbated by the absence of an active American role in the region.
Secretary of State Clinton has grossly mishandled the Korean situation by
failing to first appreciate the seriousness back in March, and subsequently
using it as a bargaining chip to secure Chinese approval for sanctions against
Iran (which are more popular as a topic in the US media and among the general
Korean-Americans have been among the most visible of Asian minorities in the
country, with a range of achievements to their credit. President Obama's
failure to leverage their experience to secure a greater understanding of
ground realities and engage in a principled course of action has tainted
America as a friend of any power in the region.
India has the ability to benefit most from an active role for Obama. The United
States remains the most popular foreign nation in the country, even as New
Delhi battles with terrorists, and increasingly the Maoists. (See
The jihadi ate my homework Asia Times Online, February 24, 2007.)
All that aside, the most important social issue confronting India is the
ability of the country's downtrodden to emerge from social and political
shackles. Much like in Japan, India's political system remains dominated by a
few families whose stranglehold has in turn made the actions of the
disenfranchised that much more desperate (think of the Maoists here, who appear
to mainly draw their support from poor farmers without a political voice).
It has not gone unnoticed in India that Obama's background is particularly
inspirational for people belonging to poorer economic groups in the country. As
a country where the social stigma associated with one's birth tends to be the
strongest in Asia, the experience of Obama is an eye-opener on more than one
front: firstly an increased admiration for the US and secondly (and perhaps)
through the emergence of new leaders.
The country of part of Obama's upbringing has admittedly not enjoyed
significant attention for the past two years; it has almost been a happy
coincidence that the overall economic and political developments of the country
have remained on the positive path.
Among all Islamic countries, it is Indonesia that offers the greatest hope to
become a potent symbol through its combination of a tolerant version of Islam,
democracy and a focus on economic development that helps lift living standards
across the country.
That is, however, a superficial view; undercurrents of increasing militancy and
radicalism are impossible to avoid, particularly as the US campaign in the
Middle East and Afghanistan continue unabated. The dangers of 200 million angry
Muslims for the rest of Asia cannot be overstated.
Obama can start with an easy victory in Indonesia, given his significant
popularity in the country already. An ability to defang militant groups in
their recruitment of young Indonesians would go a long way in both curbing the
spread of militancy and enhancing the prestige of the US in the country.