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  • "America is Back in Asia!".... Uh, about that...

    After hearing ad nausea from the Administration that America is back in Asia after a presumed absence under eight years of the Bush Administration, now comes the caveat.  President Obama will cancel his upcoming trip to Guam, Indonesia and Australia – in the interest of salvaging his near singular preoccupation – health care reform.  That didn’t take long.  (Now, the trip is officially “postponed”.  But this being the third time it has happened, the hosts certainly shouldn’t count on rescheduling.  If it were a dinner invitation, such a guest would certainly be struck from future lists.)

    The visit was a big deal for Guam.  Guam is part of America, a place that most vividly demonstrates America’s “resident status” in the Pacific.  It bulges with American military; it is also at the center of a dispute between the US and Japan over the transfer of American forces on Okinawa.  But Guam is used to being overlooked.

    The Australians will also deal with it.  The US-Australian alliance is a mature one.  They can always be counted on to serve at the side of freedom.  Do the Americans take their friendship for granted?  Absolutely.  But sometimes that’s what friends are for.  Sometimes.  The big downside to the Australia miss involves America’s highest priority – Afghanistan.  The visit was an opportunity for Obama to secure Australian command in place of the departing Dutch in Oruzgan Province, and potentially an augmentation of their troop numbers there.  It was also an opportunity for Obama and Prime Minister Rudd to establish a personal rapport that could be important to American interests in Asia – but also globally.

    The Australians could be forgiven some coolness to American needs in Afghanistan in response to the President’s cancellation.  I mean, if the President of the United States can’t pull himself away from Washington long enough to personally request they stretch themselves in Afghanistan, I don’t know how he can ask Prime Minister Rudd to stick his own neck out politically.  But, you know, the Australians will probably do the right thing anyway.  That’s just the way they are.

    That leaves us with Indonesia.  The benefits of the Indonesia visit are not as immediately tangible as they are in Australia.  The President’s trip was an opportunity to begin a “comprehensive partnership” with Indonesia, a challenging, long-term undertaking to be sure, but one well worth the investment.  Indonesia’s geographic position alone, between the Indian and Pacific oceans and astride straits through which more than half of world trade and energy supplies to Northeast Asia (China, Japan, Korea) flows make it critical to American interests.  So does its initiative in successfully fighting back terrorists.  Indonesia is the fourth largest country in the world.  It is the giant of Southeast Asia, representing the predominance of power in the 10-nation Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN).  It’s a full fledged, if still developing, democracy, the freest in Southeast Asia.  So much more than a “Muslim country,” Indonesia is, indeed, a country made up mostly of Muslims, an example to other Muslim communities of the coexistence of Islam and political liberty.

    Indonesia is not Australia.  Our relationship with newly democratic Indonesia is barely out of the blocks.  As noted above, this is the third time President Obama has “postponed” on Indonesia.  Originally, he was to have visited during his November 2009 swing through Asia.  The mistake there was nurturing Indonesian expectations. It was always the case that if the President could only visit three countries, they would naturally be Japan, South Korea, and China.  The President and his staff should have known that.  (His stop in Singapore was the pretext for the trip – the annual meeting of APEC.  Obama nicely leveraged that stop to broader American geopolitical symbolism by meeting with the 10 ASEAN heads of state/government in the first ever ASEAN Summit.)

    The new era of American engagement in Southeast Asia now seems so far away.  Already burdened by a lack of a trade policy – the substantive heart of Southeast Asia – now leaders there cannot even count on the physical presence of the American President.

    If you think for a moment that the Indonesians will understand, think again.  The President cancelling on them – and on President Yudhoyono (SBY) in particular – is a major insult.  Not everyone in Indonesia was happy about President Obama coming – particularly the very small but determined band of Indonesian Islamists still bent on overturning Indonesia’s democratic constitution.   They will now claim victory and snicker at SBY’s naiveté.  Similar story elsewhere in the region.  The envy among the other countries in Southeast Asia, particularly among America’s formal treaty allies in the Philippines and Thailand, was palpable.  SBY’s face will be a little redder next he sees his friends there.  But hey, Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao will be visiting Indonesia next month.  Maybe in the interest of “strategic reassurance”, Wen can represent U.S. interests…

    So the “America’s back” charade has been punctured.  It’s an excellent time to puncture another: President Obama as “America’s first Asia Pacific President.”  Let’s be clear.  The President’s (self-declared) claim to this title rests on his residence in Jakarta between the ages of 6 and 10.  That, and his years growing up in Hawaii (actually still part of the United States).  President Obama has thus far demonstrated a remarkably tin ear for American leadership in Asia – befitting his limited, albeit much hyped, connection to the region.  American Presidents do not bow to the Emperor of Japan. They don’t kowtow to or plead with Chinese Communists.  And when they make promises to new friends like we’re seeking in Indonesia, they keep them.  All the references to Obama’s boyhood in Indonesia, his love of Indonesian meatball soup, and the rumors of his fluency in Indonesian language mean nothing if he can’t keep his word.  How do they trust him on the big things if they can’t trust him on the small things?  That question is more than protocol; it is a matter of American strategic interest.

    Posted in International [slideshow_deploy]

    6 Responses to "America is Back in Asia!".... Uh, about that...

    1. Deborah/Arlington, V says:

      What office are you running for in the Republican Party? What an amazing bunch of jerks. Perfectly content to sell America down the river with 2 wars and not only no taxes to pay for them but another tax cut for the rich and famous.

      What happened to the trickle down theory?

      The real reason you all are even discussing The President's trip is because starting with Nixon, many wealthy Americans have invested in Asia and they want their interests protected. Mississippi lobbied the President to include Toyota in the "clunkers program" and I heard no cry from the Republicans. Tea Party…independent…hardly just another division of RNC.

    2. Janice T, Colorado says:

      The trip is rescheduled for June so the President can be accompanied by his two young daughters, Sasha and Malia.

    3. Tom,Amherst says:

      Kind of a pleasant surprise to read today that Mr. Lohman has been selected to represent the US at the inauguration of Noynoy Aquino as the new president of The Philippines(Walter Lohman, director of The Heritage Foundation's Asian Studies Center, who Obama will send to represent the US at Aquino's inauguration next month, will give a clear picture of where RP-US relations are headed.

      ). Is President Obama signalling a respect for the opinions of Mr. Lohman? And does Mr. Lohman have a background in The Philippines history and culture? These are important questions. For it was under Cory that we lost our bases there, at Clark and Subic. Both were valuable local assets, and much cherished by the ordinary folk in the region. But the leftist Aquino resented the long history of US support for the dictator Marcos(under whom her husband was assassinated), and wanted to throw us out. And notwithstanding the popular will to keep the bases there, she raised the rent, and we said, see you later.

      Or go back even further, to the Philippine war in 1898 to 1902, under McKinley. The insurrectos threw out the Spanish, we sank the Spanish fleet, and we ended up owning the Philippines. But why did we have to fight the insurrectos? They were looking for their independence from Spain and the US. We could not work that out? We fought them for 4 years, for crying out loud. And after that? Yes, we did some good things. Education, construction, infrastructure, government organization, economy. And defended and then liberated in WW II. But then what? With the country in ruins, what do we do? Talk about cynical. We grant them their independence, and walk away.

      There's a lot of history to understand, and to be made clear on both sides. Openly. So we all know the past. The only way to proceed is with full knowledge of the mistakes of the past.

    4. Tom,Amherst says:

      Oh, and good luck on your trip. There's a lot to see there. Corregidor, the US cemetary, walking along the bay, esp. in the evening. Many museums and gardens. The malls are fun. You know, there are cemetaries all over Luzon with Americans buried in them? If you have time, get out of Manila, and see the countryside. Take a bus ride into the countryside, it's only a few hours to anywhere on Luzon. Sample the terrific food along the way. Fresh food being sold almost everywhere you turn. Even on the buses. So bring along a stack of P10 notes, and P5 coins. And read the Manila newspapers. There are several English-language ones. Star, Times, Bulletin. In Tarlac there's a famous sculpture of Ninoy stepping off an airplane. It's right in the middle of the business district. The Aquinos are from that area. Another place I can recommend is Lingayen. The site of many landings, including the Japanese in Dec. 1941, just after Pearnl Harbor; and the US, 4 years later, just after Leyte. They have a great display of tanks and planes, and an outdoor photo exhibit of the allied landings. And a beautiful long beach, with mountain chains to the West and to the East.Keep in touch.-tom

    5. Pingback: Pull it Together, Mr. President | Conservative Principles Now

    6. Pingback: Obama-in-Indonesia Post Roundup – Jakartica

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