Speaking Of Asia

Obama's legacy in Asia

His farewell trip had its low points but ties, especially with China, might have been worse without the Pacific president.


Concluding my column on the Philippines and China last week, I wondered aloud what might happen if the famously coarse- tongued new president in Manila, caught at the end of a long day, unleashed a verbal fusillade against an intransigent counterpart in Beijing. Little did I imagine then that the nightmare would come alive so soon - and the target would be not the one I had anticipated but an unexpected and even more powerful quarter, US President Barack Obama.

But there you have it, despite the attempt to reel back the insult by Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte to the nation that is his ally by treaty. Coming shortly after the airside contretemps between Chinese and US officials at Hangzhou airport, where Mr Obama had to emerge "from the ass" of Air Force One, rather than the regular steel ladder, the world's most powerful man has good reason to wonder whether he'd walked into an ambush as he arrived for his farewell presidential trip to Asia.

Diplomatic insults come dressed in more masks than you can see at your average Halloween, although the favourite masquerade is "genuine mistake". Chinese President Hu Jintao, in 2006, stood listening as the wrong national anthem - Republic of China's - was announced at the White House. Mr Xi Jinping, the current Chinese leader, in Buckingham Palace for a state visit last year over which his diplomats made several pesky demands to their host, may have wondered whether the 1989 vintage of the Chateau Haut-Brion bordeaux served him was the Queen's subtle way of getting her own back with a reminder of the Tiananmen Square incident.

So, while the airport fracas can probably be papered over with some effective spin, it is less easy to laugh at Mr Duterte's coarse words, never mind that he uses the Tagalog word "putangina" to end sentences much the same easy way some on either side of the India-Pakistan border use a curse that sounds so like the English name of a stringed instrument. Surely this was no way to send off a man who likes to be known as America's first Pacific president as well as being the architect of the so-called pivot to Asia.

But what's done is done, and there is no getting away from it. And as Mr Obama departs Asia, his record is worth examining. His critics might even suggest that the arguments and foul language are emblematic of the state of the region he leaves behind.

To be sure, the record is a mixed one. At one level are the evident successes of his Asia policy: the arc of friendships he's solidified starting with once proudly non-aligned India, now firmly a fellow traveller, to the opening with Myanmar that's helped send its army back to the barracks and the dramatic reset of ties with Vietnam, once a bitter enemy.


There were also the soothing gestures towards Japan as he visited Hiroshima, the victim of the first atomic bombing in history, and this week's outreach to Laos, once mercilessly bombed by America as it sought to cut off the supply route for Vietnamese forces. This year's elegant state dinner for Singapore, a rare event, also underscored the value of an enduring friendship that's helped maintain the peace in Asia.

On the most important account though, with China, the jury will be out for a long time. Could the relationship have been handled better? Or should the American leader be credited for preventing it from sliding to worse levels? Has he, intentionally or otherwise, made China look isolated in its natural backyard? Could he not have attempted to reel in North Korea the way he seems to have done with Iran? Was his signature economic programme for the region, the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a bit half-hearted?

The answer depends partly on how one views China's behaviour. Is the mainland driven by a cold calculation and pursuit of its national interest, or has strategic confusion, even carelessness, come to mark many of its actions?

Those who remember China's military moves that drove Vietnam out of the Paracels in 1974 and 1988 and how it took the Filipinos by surprise when it occupied Mischief Reef in 1995, three years after the US withdrew from Subic Bay and Clark Air Base, will see a China coldly pursuing its hegemonic interests while presenting a peaceful facade about its rise. On the other hand, its less-than- edifying initial aid offer of US$125,000 when the Philippines was struck by Typhoon Haiyan in 2013 suggested a pettiness and pique about Manila taking it to international arbitration that sat uneasily with its reputation for an ability to take the long view.

Likewise, the decision to boycott the arbitral panel has, in hindsight, not saved it the embarrassment that came from the unexpectedly vehement adverse ruling it received. And most recently, it has dragged Indonesia, Asean's biggest nation and until now a neutral party, into the South China Sea dispute by its actions in that country's waters off the Natunas. Too many key people in Beijing, it would appear, are walking around with bad migraines.


Those who speak for China would probably begin by noting that for a country of its size, its exclusive economic zone (EEZ) is relatively meagre, compared with what is enjoyed by, say, smaller nations like


India or even the Philippines. Hence the Chinese thrust outward, including the laughable claim to most of the South China Sea


marked out by its nine dashes along a looping line. There's also no denying that a famously insecure civilisation that built the Great Wall had its nervousness triggered by the intrusive snooping the US conducts in its EEZ, the strategic ties the lone superpower was swiftly building with key powers such as India and its quiet endorsement for Japan's remilitarisation.

The issue is whether Mr Obama could have done more to assuage those insecurities and worked towards a better relationship with the No. 2 global power or whether he correctly concluded that regardless of what he does to accommodate China's interests, Beijing will seek to ultimately push the US out of Asia and out back into the Pacific.

The saga of China's rise and its strategic assertiveness is by no means ended. For every person who celebrates the brick wall the Chinese economy has run into, there's another who will point to the impressive structural shifts in its economy that presage a more efficient economic machine to come. Its military, trimmed down and increasingly gaining techno- logy, gets more powerful by the day. That will reverberate not only across Asia but also around the world.

On the other hand, there's also no knowing how long its current political edifice can be sustained, whether Mr Xi Jinping will stay in office longer than the typical decade, and whether the country's surface stability conceals deeper rumblings taking place out of sight. And a Hillary Clinton presidency in the US could make today's ructions between the entrenched power and the challenger seem like a pleasant dream.

Mr Geir Lundestad, the long-serving secretary of the committee that picked Mr Obama for the 2009 Nobel Peace Prize, suggested last year that the award hadn't been a great idea because "the committee didn't achieve what it had hoped for". Maybe that perception will be overturned in time to come. It might be a while - four, or maybe eight years - before we get a better measure of what Mr Obama meant to Asia.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 09, 2016, with the headline 'Obama's legacy in Asia'. Print Edition | Subscribe