Bill Emmott - International Author & Adviser


Obama turns focus from Europe to Asia
Corriere della Sera - November 13th 2009

Everyone knows, or thinks that they know, that American power is declining. And yet everyone also wants America’s attention, and wants some reflected glory both from the sole global superpower and from its celebrity president, Barack Obama. That, at least, is the only way to explain this oddity. In Europe, which the American president failed to visit this week to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the greatest event in postwar history, the fall of the Berlin Wall, we think America’s gaze has moved irrevocably from us to Asia. Yet in Asia, where President Obama landed yesterday at the beginning of his first tour of the continent, they wonder why it has taken him ten months to fly across the Pacific. Is America losing interest in Asia, they ask?

            Of course, the reality is that America is always interested first in America, and it is the domestic problems—the economy, health care, financial reform—that have grabbed President Obama’s attention. Abroad, it is problems that affect America directly that divert him most easily from domestic issues, and that means Afghanistan and Iraq, where American forces are fighting, and the Middle East above all. He is not going to spend so much time on continents that are at peace, which by and large is the case in Europe and Asia.

            It is clear, however, that Asia presents much more profound long-term challenges to America than Europe does. Yes, we have to work out our relationship with Russia, just as America must. But we are not facing incidents like this week’s deadly clash between the warships of North and South Korea, nor are we threatened by the nuclear-weapons ambitions of a reclusive Stalinist dictator, like North Korea’s Kim Jong-Il. Nor does Europe contain rising, transformative powers such as India and China. We in Europe are trying to manage—or we hope prevent—our relative decline. In Asia, it is a question of managing some rapidly rising powers, rather as in Europe in the late 19th century. Since Europe’s power change ended up with the 1914-18 war, the end of which was this week’s other commemoration, especially in France and Britain, President Obama would be well advised to pay close attention to Asia.

            There, on his tour, which has begun in Tokyo, will move this weekend to Singapore for the summit of the Asia-Pacific Economic Co-operation forum, then to Shanghai and Beijing, before finally Seoul, President Obama will find an awkward mixture of confidence and apprehension.

            The confidence comes from Asia’s rapid and vigorous economic recovery, led by China but shared too by most of its neighbours, along with the feeling that the region no longer needs to endure lectures from Americans and Europeans about how best to manage their economies and avoid financial crises. In China, it also comes from the fact that the Communist Party regime has again survived an economic slump with its power intact. The forgotten element of this week’s celebrations of the end of the Cold War in Europe is that 1989 saw not only a successful series of democratic revolutions in Central and Eastern Europe, but it also saw a failed revolution in China—which died in the streets surrounding Tiananmen Square, in June of that year. That attempted revolution arose out of a Chinese economic crisis, so the Chinese leaders feared a repeat during the past year. They are delighted and rather smug that they have avoided one.

            The apprehension, however, comes from the sense that change cannot be avoided altogether. In Japan, change is already under way with the centre-left Democratic Party of Japan leading the first true alternation of power since 1955. The DPJ’s prime minister, Yukio Hatoyama, is trying to overthrow the traditional control of government policy by the bureaucracy. But in doing so he needs to maintain his popularity, and so is risking American anger by seeking to review a 2006 agreement about moving the main American military base on the southern island of Okinawa. Reports of that anger are probably overdone: after a face-saving pause for a review, the DPJ are likely to end up agreeing to the same plan, give or take a detail or two. But the uncertainty is itself unsettling.

            The most apprehensive country, though, is the one about which others are most apprehensive: China. The Chinese regime knows that all the talk about “rebalancing” the world economy really just means one thing: a revaluation of the manipulated and artificially cheap Chinese currency, and a need to increase China’s imports and restrain its exports. At the same time, the government has just adopted an ambitious plan to reduce carbon dioxide emissions and turn notoriously dirty China into a pioneer of low-carbon cleanliness, just as Japan transformed its environmental record during the 1970s. It is admirable but not easy: it will require an economic revolution, which will inevitably bring worries of political instability too. As President Obama tours Asia, he would do well to remind himself whose position is truly strong, and whose might be surprisingly weak.



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