The Magazine

Obama Blunders Through Asia

Undoing Bush's years of deft diplomacy.

Nov 30, 2009, Vol. 15, No. 11 • By ROSS TERRILL
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Much dire rhetoric has been unleashed in liberal quarters about the damage done by George W. Bush's foreign policy. The alleged damage, however, is not evident in Asia. When Ken Lieberthal, a respected China specialist and Democratic loyalist, spoke at Harvard early this year, I asked him to name a single year in memory when Washington had as good relations with India, Japan, and China as under Bush. He changed the subject.

The White House stated as Obama left Asia for home last week: "Overall, American leadership was absent from this region for the last several years.'' Nonsense. Bush left office with U.S. relations with Asia's big four--China, India, Japan, and Indonesia--taken together, better than ever in history.

Indian prime minister Manmohan Singh many times remarked that President Bush was popular in India, and so was the United States. U.S.-Japan relations were excellent under Bush, in partnership with Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi and two successors. Nor were U.S. relations with Australia ever as good as in the years when Bush presided in Washington and John Howard in Canberra. In Southeast Asia after 9/11 the U.S. position improved sharply with Singapore, Malaysia, the Philippines, and Thailand. And Bush drew Vietnam and, after 2007, South Korea, under its new president Lee Myung Bak, closer to the United States.

As for China, in his second Inaugural Address and his oration at Kyoto en route to Beijing in 2005, Bush treated the Chinese with respect but also as laggards in world-historical terms. "Free nations are peaceful nations," he said in Japan. "Free nations do not threaten their neighbors, and free nations offer their citizens a hopeful vision for the future."

Speaking hours before he was to reach Beijing, Bush was more explicit, yet still positive: "We encourage China to continue down the road of reform and openness, because the freer China is at home, the greater the welcome it will receive abroad.     As China reforms its economy, its leaders are finding that once the door to freedom is opened even a crack, it cannot be closed."

The irony is large. "Cowboy" Bush pulled off the feat of speaking boldly to Beijing about American values while also achieving a productive relationship with China. He secured solid support from Japan over Iraq, Afghanistan, and other issues without bowing down before the emperor.

Visiting China twice a year during the Bush administration, I watched the business sections of big-city bookshops grow. Typically, they offered Chinese translations of U.S. business titles, memoirs of successful American businessmen, and Chinese works applying U.S. entrepreneurial ways to local conditions. Never did I see any work by Al Franken, Michael Moore, or Garrison Keillor on offer in Chinese. Grassroots China was palpably pro-America and pro-Bush.

One hopes that continues, but it won't occur through apologies, embarrassment over U.S. power, and chatter about moral equivalence. In Shanghai on November 16 in front of hundreds of Chinese students, Obama touched on freedom only to say it is a challenge facing both the United States and China!

Obama's one-man "change" seems to have little bearing on our actual Asian relationships. The other day, the president encouraged North Korea to "rejoin the international community." When did it join? His claim to be "America's first Pacific president" overlooked Kennedy's and Bush père's service in the Pacific during World War II and Hoover's years as an engineer in Australia and China.

Viewed historically, the position of the United States in East Asia is favorable because of the sustained deployment of American power, the triumph of the American values of democracy and free markets, and the attractiveness of American popular culture. For most of the twentieth century, the United States had some difficulty in maintaining decent relations with Japan and China simultaneously. Since the 1970s, however, with the Vietnam war behind us, a stable balance between Japan and China has been secured by the superior strength of the United States and an equilibrium created by American leadership.

The U.S. military is still the linchpin of deterrence, keeping the peace in Korea, the Taiwan Strait, and elsewhere, as it has for half a century. But Obama is backing away from American leadership and proposing to reduce U.S. military strength in the hope that nasty regimes may do the same.

Some good news is that America's China policy has been fundamentally stable since the Nixon-Mao opening of 1971-72. This continuity has resulted from four enduring factors: Washington is markedly more powerful than Beijing, and Chinese political and military leaders know it. China, unlike the United States, faces multiple potent neighbors; challenges other than from Washington can and do rear up. Third, for Chinese leaders, domestic development and stability is a higher priority than foreign policy goals. Finally, successive American presidents have seen no net benefit in again tangling militarily with China, as the United States did in Korea and Vietnam.

The age of globalization locks in this stability. We are no more dependent on China for buying U.S. Treasury bills than the Chinese are dependent on us for buying their apparel and electronics. This mutuality should prevent any collapse in China policy, whatever the Obama administration does; mutuality on such a scale seldom breaks down suddenly.

The bad news about Obama and China is that his China policy resembles a pack of cards that is reshuffled to suit the occasion.

In February, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said that "issues such as Tibet, Taiwan and human rights     can't interfere with the global economic crisis, the global climate change crisis, and the security crisis." This is one of the worst statements by any secretary of state in memory.

The Taiwan issue is about whether 23 million people will live in a democracy or under the Chinese Communist party. As Bush said, "Free nations are peaceful nations," and China threatens Taiwan. Taiwan's future is also about the balance of power in Asia. But Clinton averts her eyes and thinks, Don't let threats to Taiwan "interfere" with talking about global warming in Copenhagen! Obama declined to see the Dalai Lama before his trip to China, because that would displease Beijing. He will see the Tibetan after the trip to China: Who does that please?

Freedom is about whether the Chinese people will get news of the world unfiltered or only what the Communist party chooses for them to have. Freedom is about whether American products will get the access to Chinese markets that Chinese products have here. Freedom is about whether American scholars doing research in China are allowed the unfettered access that Chinese scholars working in the United States have. Freedom is not a card to pull out or whisk away as the occasion may require.

Obama on November 14 welcomed "the rise of a strong, prosperous China" as a "source of strength for the community of nations." Unlike Bush, he did not say a "free" or "democratic" China. Here is change we must denounce. There is a world of difference between China as an unfree superpower and China as a democratic superpower. Obama ducks the issue. Yet to see East Asia's U.S.-led security system replaced by an authoritarian Chinese leadership would undermine the interests of Washington and numerous capitals in the region.

While in China, Obama let Hu take the lead on how the visit was handled and on how the issues were framed. The mention of Taiwan in the joint Obama-Hu statement favors China by implying that sovereignty is the heart of the issue (meaning Taiwan ultimately belongs to China). No mention that any change in Taiwan's status should be with the Taiwan people's agreement or that stability in Asia would be upturned by Taiwan's disappearance as a separate nation.

The joint statement also talks condescendingly about India as part of a problem (with Pakistan) that Obama and Hu must together assess. But India is a partner no less important for Washington than China; would Obama condescend to China by jointly pontificating with India on China's relations with the appalling regimes of Burma and North Korea? It is simply not the case that China is Washington's global partner, with democratic India down at a lower rank.

A Los Angeles Times editorial asserted in January, "Obama assumes the presidency in a multipolar world." Not so. The United States was easily the world's only superpower on January 20, 2009. The danger is that Obama's "changes" will bring on a multipolar world: Talk with everybody about nothing and with nobody about anything. Slight the notion of clashes of interest among nations. Soft-pedal the idea of evil in the world. Such mushiness could soon shrink U.S. power.

In East Asia, moral example may or may not be effective in disarming rogues, but deterrence has worked. In this respect, 9/11 changed Asia less than it changed other parts of the world. Obama is not required to "reset" our relations with Asia. Rather, he should maintain the balance between Japan and China that has facilitated peace and economic development in East Asia since the 1970s. He should tell friend and foe alike that the United States considers democracy and free markets superior to authoritarianism and command economies, and give top priority to deepening America's relationships with its democratic friends, including Japan, India, South Korea, Australia, and other smaller powers. The U.S.-Japanese tie is central. Japan is with us; China is a question mark.

On particular matters, Obama must rouse the Democratic majority in Congress to end its disgraceful failure to seal a free trade agreement with South Korea. In Burma, U.S. diplomats should not be content to take one more cup of tea with Aung San Suu Kyi, but should say to the Burmese military dictatorship and the world that next year's elections will mean nothing unless Aung San Suu Kyi is fully free to campaign. On the Korean Peninsula--one place in Asia where the Bush administration achieved little--Obama ought to end the farce by changing the agenda of the Six-Party talks from terminating North Korea's nuclear program (near-impossible to agree on, impossible to verify) to moving toward the reunification of Korea (which would end the Pyongyang regime step by step and so solve the nuclear problem).

Of course, Obama might also, in a video message to Copenhagen, with an upraised arm and a slight frown, demand an end to global warming in Asia, and in his thank you notes to his nearly all male hosts on the Asia trip instruct them to roll back 5,000 years of oppression of Asian women by Asian men. The president shouldn't let Hu take the lead on everything.

Ross Terrill is an associate in research at Harvard's Fairbank Center for Chinese Studies. His latest book, Myself and China, will be published in Chinese in January.