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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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.