Speaking Of Asia

Barack Obama settles the family 'business'

The American President has pulled his nation out of its morass.

For all practical purposes, United States President Barack Obama has just had his farewell trip to Asia. True, he is indeed likely to turn up in Laos for the East Asia Summit at the year end but he will be a lame duck by then and, really, all that can be expected from him in Vientiane is the photo op of a farewell wave with perhaps the Mekong as the backdrop.

The heavy lifting, to borrow an American expression, has been largely completed, now that he has removed the embargo on weapon sales to Vietnam in its entirety. Not to speak of last week's memorable visit to Hiroshima, a city whose bombing in 1945, along with that of Nagasaki a few days later, decisively ended World War II and established American dominance over the world.

While making no apologies for that action, Mr Obama may have tacitly helped his friend Shinzo Abe cast his nation in the garb of a victim - subtle nuance that should no doubt help the Japanese Prime Minister push Japan, the wartime aggressor, into the status of a more "normal" nation. No US president had visited Hiroshima before.

Mr Obama apparently counts the iconic Mob movies of the 1970s, The Godfather and The Godfather Part II, among his favourites. If that is so, then he could privately say to himself that in his second term, like the reluctant Michael Corleone in The Godfather who is forced by circumstance to do distasteful things in order to protect his flock, he has "settled much of the family business".

That business is to preserve the world-dominating power the US has demonstrated over the past 75 years. For a person who was handed a poisoned chalice of an economy that caused the global financial crisis - at a time when China, after a quarter-century of breathtaking growth, allowed itself to be lulled into thinking its time had come and that the US was on the decline - America's first Pacific president, as Mr Obama likes to be known, has pulled his nation out of its morass. On almost every measure, he is, like the good golfer he aspires to be, leaving the course in better shape than when he stepped onto it.


ST ILLUSTRATION: MANNY FRANCISCO

Drawing an arc from West Asia, he has made peace with Iran, just killed the leader of the Taleban faction frustrating his moves in Afghanistan, nailed Osama bin Laden inside his hideaway in Pakistan (and had his body dropped into the sea off the aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson), pulled in a proud and independent India to near-ally status, made a successful opening to Myanmar that has helped Ms Aung San Suu Kyi take charge of its government, and corrected South Korea's propensity to increasingly tilt towards China. For all practical purposes, the US is back in the Philippines as well.

For a person who was handed a poisoned chalice of an economy that caused the global financial crisis... America's first Pacific president, as Mr Obama likes to be known, has pulled his nation out of its morass. On almost every measure, he is, like the good golfer he aspires to be, leaving the course in better shape than when he stepped onto it.

The climax was Vietnam, where as many as two million people showed up in the streets of Ho Chi Minh City, many waiting overnight in the rain, to receive the leader of the nation that heaped so much misery upon their country in a former era. Some wept as they heard about him eating bun cha in an ordinary little cafe, expertly using chopsticks.

"The Obama visit completed Vietnam's normalisation with the outside world and reconciliation with itself," respected Thai academic Thitinan Pongsudhirak wrote recently. "The US lost then. It has won now, as Mr Obama consolidates his administration's 'rebalance' strategy towards Asia."

Particularly with Vietnam, where many freedoms are still not granted and corruption is astonishingly high, Mr Obama clearly had to hold his nose as he went about his task. That he did so indicates how serious he is to create a web of relationships around China, even at the risk of giving the impression that a policy of containing that country seems to be in the works.

If that is indeed so, and the Americans would dispute it, Beijing must shoulder a significant share of the responsibility. Mr Obama came into office with no evident prejudice against China. Indeed, he seemed more than willing to accommodate its aspirations. But the Chinese, whose swagger had grown since the global financial crisis, dragged him into conceding more than he had been prepared for at a 2009 summit in Beijing, then messed up big time the following month at the Copenhagen climate change talks when they sent junior officials to sit across him.

It was a calculated snub and Mr Obama, who likes to think of himself as a "no drama Obama", never forgot the slight. From that point on, his attitude to China would change. Soon, his administration would announce the "pivot" to Asia.

In hindsight, it would seem that the pivot had been in the works for a while; the Pentagon, certainly, had been preparing for it even before Mr Obama became commander-in- chief. But the word, with its implied menace, took on a new meaning and, although the Obama administration later toned it down to "rebalance", there was no doubt which way the US was heading.

It also appears, looking back, that Mr Obama made one more attempt - to borrow from the script of The Godfather again - to "reason with" China. That was at the Sunnylands summit with Chinese President Xi Jinping in the summer of 2013. Tellingly, they kept it between themselves. Mrs Michelle Obama dropped out at the last minute, denying Ms Peng Liyuan an opportunity to grab favourable headlines in America.

Perhaps Mrs Obama had been advised of earlier times when Mrs Raisa Gorbachev upstaged Mrs Nancy Reagan on the sidelines of another summit. The feel-good factor of the Obama-Xi meeting did not last long. Strategic suspicions between the two have only grown.

Separately, a series of aggressive moves from China - the latest being its coast guard's action to free a Chinese vessel caught poaching in Indonesia's exclusive economic zone - helped to convince any fence-sitters in Asia of the value of a continued strong US presence in the region. If Beijing feels confident enough to lean on Asean's largest nation, how should the minnows react?

Mr Obama rubbed it in while visiting Hanoi, when he made the point, without specifically mentioning China, that "big nations should not bully smaller ones".

The official reaction of the Chinese to Mr Obama's decision to lift the embargo on Vietnam was to welcome it. But their true sentiments came through in a Global Times editorial, which said the US President's reassurance that that was not an anti-China move was a "very poor lie".

Mr Obama, who won a Nobel Peace Prize early in his tenure, leaves office watching the US military-industrial complex win more arms contracts overseas than in his predecessor's time. The man who makes robust speeches on the need to reduce the spread of nuclear weapons has signed up to a programme that will spend US$1 trillion (S$1.4 trillion) on upgrading the US nuclear arsenal. In statecraft, such contradictions would seem to be par for the course.

Three years ago, the fear was that the political stalemate in Washington as well as other preoccupations had left the White House with little time, and even less appetite, to focus adequately on Asia. Those fears do not seem so salient any more. America's decision to sign the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation in South-east Asia, its joining the East Asia Summit, the public position that the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands are covered under its defence treaty with Japan, this year's summit in California with the leaders of Asean, US Defence Secretary Ash Carter's pointed remarks on the superiority of US weapons, the increased frequency of "freedom of navigation" operations in regional waters - all point to the rebalance being implemented.

Whether all this, ultimately, leads to a more peaceful region, is too early to say. Some questions will remain. Why, for instance, did Mr Obama not attempt a deal with North Korea on the lines of that which he gave Iran? One thing is clear though: Even if he does not turn out to be the most pacifist president, few will doubt that he was indeed a Pacific one.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 03, 2016, with the headline 'Obama settles the family 'business''. Print Edition | Subscribe