Obama's Asian odyssey

view gallery VIEW GALLERY

In a world of changing realities, all eyes will be on the President on his tour of the Far East. But can he make any real impact? Rupert Cornwell reports

Barack Obama's first visit to Asia as President will feature a familiar array of weighty topics: North Korea and its nuclear threat; climate change; and America's huge trade imbalances with China and Japan. But his biggest challenge is more fundamental: how does the US maintain its relevance in a resurgent region, with the most dynamic economy on the planet?

Not that Washington is being pushed out. Its military presence, and the security umbrella that presence extends to Japan, South Korea and Taiwan, are crucial to regional stability – and will remain so, until the Korean peninsula is reunited, Taiwan ceases to be a thorn in Beijing's side, and China and Japan – East Asia's two biggest powers – genuinely trust each other. In the fight against terrorism and in tackling natural disasters like the 2004 tsunami, the US plays a crucial role.

But other realities are changing fast. Asia is now a financial and economic superpower, and is building its own multilateral institutions. China's financial agreements in Africa are only one vivid sign of how the region is becoming a global actor.

A decade ago, the US was lecturing south-east Asian countries on how to resolve the financial crisis that all but ruined Thailand and Indonesia. Tomorrow Mr Obama will arrive in Tokyo as leader of the most indebted country on earth, the reserve role of whose dollar is increasingly under question, and whose own financial system is ultimately kept afloat by the willingness of Asian countries to buy US government securities. "Asians are redefining their region," says a report from the prestigious Council on Foreign Relations. It adds that Washington must "adapt to the contours of change in Asia, if the US wishes to remain vital and relevant there".

Thus far there has been little sign Mr Obama is doing so, even though the childhood years he spent in Indonesia give him a unique perspective on the region. The main new departure has been a cautious willingness to engage the repressive military regime in Burma. For the rest however, this administration is pursuing the approach of George W Bush and Bill Clinton.

All eyes therefore will be on Mr Obama's major address in Tokyo, explaining his vision of the US role in Asia. In some ways it will be the equivalent of June's Cairo speech that attempted to redraw relations between Washington and the Islamic world. Again, his words will undoubtedly be uplifting. How much will change in practice is another matter.

The disconnect between appearances and reality will on full display during the second leg of his visit in Singapore, at the Apec summit of Asian-Pacific nations. Nominally, this gathering is the most exalted of the alphabet soup of multilateral groupings linking Asian countries among themselves and with the US and the other great Pacific power, Russia.

The truth, however, is that the 21-nation Apec meetings tend these days to be remembered only for bizarre photo-ops of the assembled leaders dressed up in local garb. The organisation itself, as the CFR notes, "is large, unwieldy, and built around an ill-defined 'Pacific community".

Increasingly, the regional body which matters is Asean-plus-three that links the 10 Asean members with China, Japan and South Korea, the three economic powerhouses to their north. That body is now talking with Russia and the US. With Asia's weight now reflected in the G20 – which is effectively replacing the US/European-dominated G8 as the steering group for the global economy – some experts suggest Apec should simply be wound up.

Indeed, the most striking image out of Singapore this weekend may well have nothing to do with Apec, but will show Mr Obama around the table with his Asean counterparts – the first time that leaders of the US and the Burmese junta have been in the same room.

Then the president heads on to China for what may well be the most important part of his week in the Orient. So close is the US-China economic relationship that some speak of a single entity called "Chimerica". Other analysts claim that the real global economic steering group is not the G8 or G20, but a G2 consisting of Washington and Beijing.

And if America's clout in the region is waning, the main beneficiary is China, now generally accepted as the world's second largest economy, on pace to overtake the US within a decade or too. Already it has passed the US to become the world's largest polluter – though no deal on climate change is likely in Beijing next week, according to US officials.

Nor is an agreement that will resolve bitter complaints here that China is unfairly manipulating its currency, keeping the yuan's exchange rate artificially low against the dollar and destroying US jobs, creating an ultimately unsustainable trade imbalance between the two countries.

The danger now is of a protectionist backlash in Washington, primarily against China, but also against other massive surplus countries like Japan and South Korea – where Mr Obama will arrive next Thursday on his last stop before heading home that night.

Once back in Washington, Asia should stay on his mind. Next year he will make his personal and intensely symbolic official return to Indonesia. For US policymakers meanwhile, Asia is starting to resemble Europe. Washington now must deal with a region, not just individual countries. The old "hub and spokes" approach, with America as hub and bilateral alliances as spokes, cannot continue, warns the CFR. "The United States will pay increasing costs to its interests, credibility, and influence unless it acts to shape multilateral trends in Asia."

Suggested Topics
Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
News
Lois Pryce... Life Without a Postcode. Lois lives on a boat with her husband.. Registering to vote in the election has prooved to be very difficult without a fixed residential post code. (David Sandison)
newsHow living on a houseboat meant I didn't officially 'exist'
Arts and Entertainment
Cassetteboy's latest video is called Emperor's New Clothes rap
videoThe political parody genius duo strike again with new video
Sport
Steven Fletcher scores the second goal for Scotland
cricketBut they have to bounce back to beat Gibraltar in Euro 2016 qualifier
News
news
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Junior Web Designer - Client Liaison

£6 per hour: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity to join a gro...

Recruitment Genius: Service Delivery Manager

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: A Service Delivery Manager is required to join...

Recruitment Genius: Massage Therapist / Sports Therapist

£12000 - £24000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A opportunity has arisen for a ...

Ashdown Group: Practice Accountant - Bournemouth - £38,000

£32000 - £38000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A successful accountancy practice in...

Day In a Page

Election 2015: How many of the Government's coalition agreement promises have been kept?

Promises, promises

But how many coalition agreement pledges have been kept?
The Gaza fisherman who built his own reef - and was shot dead there by an Israeli gunboat

The death of a Gaza fisherman

He built his own reef, and was fatally shot there by an Israeli gunboat
Saudi Arabia's airstrikes in Yemen are fuelling the Gulf's fire

Saudi airstrikes are fuelling the Gulf's fire

Arab intervention in Yemen risks entrenching Sunni-Shia divide and handing a victory to Isis, says Patrick Cockburn
Zayn Malik's departure from One Direction shows the perils of fame in the age of social media

The only direction Zayn could go

We wince at the anguish of One Direction's fans, but Malik's departure shows the perils of fame in the age of social media
Young Magician of the Year 2015: Meet the schoolgirl from Newcastle who has her heart set on being the competition's first female winner

Spells like teen spirit

A 16-year-old from Newcastle has set her heart on being the first female to win Young Magician of the Year. Jonathan Owen meets her
Jonathan Anderson: If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

British designer Jonathan Anderson is putting his stamp on venerable house Loewe
Number plates scheme could provide a licence to offend in the land of the free

Licence to offend in the land of the free

Cash-strapped states have hit on a way of making money out of drivers that may be in collision with the First Amendment, says Rupert Cornwell
From farm to fork: Meet the Cornish fishermen, vegetable-growers and butchers causing a stir in London's top restaurants

From farm to fork in Cornwall

One man is bringing together Cornwall's most accomplished growers, fishermen and butchers with London's best chefs to put the finest, freshest produce on the plates of some of the country’s best restaurants
Robert Parker interview: The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes

Robert Parker interview

The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes
Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

We exaggerate regional traits and turn them into jokes - and those on the receiving end are in on it too, says DJ Taylor
How to make your own Easter egg: Willie Harcourt-Cooze shares his chocolate recipes

How to make your own Easter egg

Willie Harcourt-Cooze talks about his love affair with 'cacao' - and creates an Easter egg especially for The Independent on Sunday
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef declares barbecue season open with his twist on a tradtional Easter Sunday lamb lunch

Bill Granger's twist on Easter Sunday lunch

Next weekend, our chef plans to return to his Aussie roots by firing up the barbecue
Joe Marler: 'It's the way I think the game should be played'

Joe Marler: 'It's the way I think the game should be played'

The England prop relives the highs and lows of last Saturday's remarkable afternoon of Six Nations rugby
Cricket World Cup 2015: Has the success of the tournament spelt the end for Test matches?

Cricket World Cup 2015

Has the success of the tournament spelt the end for Test matches?
The Last Word: Justin Gatlin knows the price of everything, the value of nothing

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Justin Gatlin knows the price of everything, the value of nothing