- The Washington Times - Saturday, November 21, 2009

ANALYSIS:

President Obama’s deep bow to the Japanese Emperor Akihito last week may be the most enduring image from his first trip to Asia, but not because it provided easy fodder for jabs from the right-wing talk machine.

Displays of humility have become a central element of Mr. Obama’s new approach to American foreign policy, a fresh global posture that attempts to convey strength not by flexing military might but by seeking common ground and displaying the confidence to readily acknowledge flaws.

“Since taking office, I have worked to renew American leadership and pursue a new era of engagement with the world,” he said in Tokyo during his first major Asia policy address. That engagement, he said, will be “based on mutual interests and mutual respect.”

As the president returned home after dashing with breakneck speed through five major cities in eight days, Mr. Obama’s foreign policy team had the chance to see firsthand both the strengths and weakness of this new strategy.

The trip had succeeded, they said, in presenting a new American face to Asia, offering firm proof that the U.S. was no longer too preoccupied with other matters to care about its relationships in the Far East. And, they said, Mr. Obama had managed to nudge China closer to the center of the world stage, prodding them to engage on a range of important global issues in the manner that they had resisted in the past.

Jeffrey Bader, the senior director on the National Security Council for Asian affairs, called the president’s lengthy meetings in China “an important first step in building a partnership between our two countries to work together on global issues.”

“We went through in some depth virtually every global issue of consequence that China and the U.S. need to work on,” Mr. Bader said. “The president emphasized that on these global issues we can’t solve them ourselves, we need partners.”

Mr. Obama laid foundations for future agreements on climate change, for cooperation on the North Korean nuclear stalemate, and for continued discussions of economic cooperation.

At the same time, though, the trip exposed the risks of such a gentle approach.

Mr. Obama left those who have suffered most under Chinese rule — religious and ethnic minorities and political dissidents — with the strong sense that the U.S. is either unable or unwilling to stand by them as they attempt to pressure the Chinese to open their society and become more tolerant.

In Japan, Mr. Obama was unable to simply repeat the firm rejection that just months earlier had come from Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates when the Japanese said they wanted to reopen discussion of the U.S. military presence in Okinawa, an agreement that had already been renegotiated once before by the Bush administration. And on none of his stops did Mr. Obama produce any real evidence that these industrial nations would bend on one core economic goal of the visit — to begin to correct a massive trade imbalance with Asia in a way that will help to create American jobs. In fact, during a joint appearance, Chinese President Hu Jintao said he did not believe the foundation for an economic recovery had been firmly established.

Further, he took a swat a the U.S., which recently tried to halt the westward flow of cheap Chinese tires.

“Under the current circumstances,” Mr. Hu said flatly, “our two countries need to oppose and reject protectionism in all its manifestations in an even stronger stand.”

Unlike Presidents Clinton and Bush, Mr. Obama also had very little success during his two and a half days in Shanghai and Beijing maneuvering around the Chinese government to speak directly to the Chinese people. At nearly every turn, the Chinese exhibited an iron grip on how the popular American president’s visit would be viewed in China.

Chinese security agents filled the lobby and took station on each floor of the Shanghai hotel where reporters were staying. There were reports they twice cut off television feeds when Mr. Obama began discussing human rights.

The key event that was intended to reach the Chinese people, a live-televised, free flowing town hall exchange with university students, came off as a mostly staged affair that was broadcast to a very limited audience. The students who questioned the president, it was later reported, had strong communist party affiliations and had been required to attend training sessions before the event.

The town hall aired on a local Shanghai cable news station, not on a national channel, and there were reports that it, too, was interrupted at points. It remains unclear how many more Chinese citizens will have seen the White House webcast of the event, which was also of spotty quality. Despite repeated requests over the course of last week, White House aides said Friday they could not share the traffic figures from the web-cast because they weren’t yet compiled.

David Kramer, who served under President Bush as assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor, said Mr. Obama’s stop in China was “pretty disappointing, in my view.”

There were “no meetings outside the usual channels, a Shanghai town hall meeting carefully orchestrated in terms of attendance by the Chinese government and party, and passing mention in public at least of Tibet and universal rights,” Mr. Kramer said. “It’s hard to convince the Chinese we’re serious about this when the president didn’t invest much in the issue himself.”

David Axelrod, Mr. Obama’s top political adviser, went along on the trip, and defended the president’s efforts to reach the Chinese people, even if they were stymied at points.

“These things don’t change overnight,” Mr. Axelrod said. “But certainly he made strong statements to a Chinese audience on a number of issues that are central to our values, and I think that will permeate over time.”

Much of gauging whether the president’s visit was a success amounts to calibrating for American expectations, Mr. Axelrod said as he stood in the lobby of Blue House, the Korean version of the White House. For those who thought Mr. Obama’s popularity would instantly convert China into a more open society, he said, there would be disappointment.

“This is not an immediate gratification business,” he said. “I understand that Washington is in the immediate gratification business. We made solid progress on climate change; that’s been reported. We’ve I think clarified understandings on security issues, and obviously on economics. Important points were made. But nobody came expecting that all of these things would be resolved on this trip. This is part of laying a foundation for progress.

Over the course of the trip, Mr. Obama’s aides appeared to be increasingly concerned that this lack of evident progress was being translated back home as failure. As they prepared to fly from China to Korea, Mr. Gibbs sent out a statement proclaiming the stop a success. His deputies sent out subsequent e-mails listing key points where they made progress.

But it was progress that was hard to measure.

Whether the trip was a success or failure ultimately “remains to be seen,” said Bonnie Glaser, a senior fellow with the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “The U.S., and President Obama in particular, will certainly get higher ratings in public opinion polls around the world,” she said. The Chinese don’t respond well to being bullied or threatened, but they do respect toughness.”

Even without the deep bow in Japan, that toughness was not on display during the president’s trip to Asia, at least in public. But to hear the president tell it, in an interview he conducted with the Chinese weekly magazine Xiang Xi before he left for Seoul, that’s no reason for concern. In his view, elevating China to super-power status will only serve to benefit the U.S., and the rest of the world, over time.

“I welcome China’s role in the world — on the world stage,” he said. “As it has more resources and more confidence, it’s able to take on more and more responsibilities. And we look forward to being an effective partner with China.”

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