- The Washington Times - Sunday, November 22, 2009

President Obama’s deep bow to 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 the Chinese 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, his administration said, laid foundations for future agreements on climate change, for cooperation on the North Korean nuclear stalemate, and for continued discussions on 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 already had been renegotiated by the George W. Bush administration.

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 create American jobs. In fact, during a joint appearance, Chinese President Hu Jintao said he did not think the foundation for an economic recovery had been firmly established.

He also took a swat at the U.S., which recently began trying 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 had little success during his 2 1/2 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.

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