International Herald Tribune
Philip Bowring: Obama in the Orient
Thursday, November 6, 2008

HONG KONG: Much has been written about the favorable impact of Obama's election on foreign perceptions of the United States. But it is worth turning the question around: What will be the impact on U.S. views of Asia, and Asian countries' views of themselves?

It has long been an article of faith in much of Asia, and China in particular, that for all the U.S. talk of being a multi-racial, melting-pot country, in reality it was run by and for white people. Non-whites were a sporting and entertainment sideshow.

To say the least, that perception will need radical revision, which in turn raises question marks over race-based policies pursued in several East Asian countries. By implication it asks questions about a Han civilization obsessed with China's failure to deal fairly and effectively with Tibetan, Uighur and other minorities.

It may also make the Chinese think twice about their own ingrained attitudes to black and brown people. For Japan and Korea, it highlights the failure of policies of racial exclusiveness which make the immigration of people without Japanese or Korean ancestry extremely difficult, with the result that with their very low birth rates, their populations are headed for steep decline.

It puts into focus the increasingly grotesque nature of Malaysia's policy of preferences for Malays, originally designed to bring about economic equality, but which has become a system of dominance over Chinese and Indian minorities.

The vitality of the U.S. electoral process, its ability to transcend historic racial divides and elect an outsider who got there entirely through his own efforts and qualities, brushing aside two political dynasties, may also be inspirational to Asia.

That is especially the case in those nations where dynastic politics has become the post-independence norm, resulting in the fossilization of leadership and stifling of opportunity.

There is no mileage for the United States in lecturing others about their records on racial or dynastic politics. The sins of the Bush era, Guantánamo, the arrogance, the imperial overreach, the sheer crudeness of many policies are still far too fresh in the minds of many in Asia to be wiped out by one election.

But the profound impact that the United States has had in the past and can have again merely by setting an example should not be forgotten even at this time when its economy is badly wounded and the limits of its military power exposed. Those who remember the soft power which emanated from John F. Kennedy, in life and death, know that potential.

Which is perhaps why popular enthusiasm for Obama around Asia is not matched by all governments. Despite the public statements, misgivings abound.

The most widespread is that Obama, pushed by a strongly democratic Congress more than by his own instincts, will opt for trade protectionism as a supposed antidote to U.S. recession.

This is a legitimate concern - though also one that expansionary economic policies in East Asia itself can help avoid.

Asian government also may not welcome stronger efforts to limit carbon emissions, though U.S. leadership would should make it easier for countries like China and India to do what they know is right.

China is not only concerned about trade. It knows how much it has benefited from Bush's focus on - and failures in - the Middle East to build its own reputation, particularly in Asia. A new personality as well as new policies in the United States can reverse some of those gains.

Already, the shifts on policy to North Korea in Bush's second term have shown the United States in a more favorable light. As for Iran, Iraq and Afghanistan, Asia will not be expecting Obama to produce quick solutions, merely to replace ideology with flexibility and a pragmatic sense of overall U.S. national interests.

Authoritarian countries generally worry that human rights and other liberal issues will regain momentum, whether in terms of U.S. policy, or the perceptions of their own subjects.

Close democratic friends such as Japan and Taiwan have a different concern: that the new administration's instincts will combine with budget pressures to cause big military cutbacks in Asia.

In South and Southeast Asia, too, a strong U.S. balance to rising Chinese power also remains very welcome. India certainly would worry about any shift away from the Bush administration's close cooperation on nuclear and military issues.

The economic issues facing Obama are daunting. In Asia, U.S. interests are so many that reconciling them will remain difficult. But these problems cannot negate the impact that the election will make on the relationship between a United States now more united in its diversity and an Asia struggling with its own diversity.