As President Obama heads to Myanmar, Cambodia and Laos this week and next, intent on reversing China’s drive to tighten its grasp on Southeast Asia, he is exercising an uncannily Asian-style diplomacy.
By moving calmly into China’s backyard, without threats or in-your-face muscularity, he is proving himself adept at playing by Asian rules. How subtle of him. And smart.
The United States entered this game in 2010, with visits by Mr. Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton to Indonesia, his boyhood home and the world’s most populous Muslim country. More recently, by meeting in the Oval Office with Myanmar’s premier political dissident, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, Mr. Obama upped the ante. For half a century the economically broken country, once known as Burma, had been China’s forlorn client and an international pariah. Now, with remarkable speed, it is discarding China’s control and appealing for American guidance as it reaches for an approximation of democracy after decades of military rule.
With this trip, the president is following through on his pledge to pivot American foreign policy away from the frustrations of the Middle East and toward Asia’s promising future. Though not yet back to the days of its “tiger” glory in the 1980s and ’90s, Southeast Asia is again a place to make money, expand markets, exercise influence, make new friends and enhance old relationships.
During the presidential election campaign, Mitt Romney signaled that he would greet Xi Jinping, who is expected to become president of China in March, with a snarl by branding China a currency manipulator. Mr. Obama, by accepting a friendly invitation to visit Southeast Asia, is choosing instead to deal with China as an equal on neutral turf, rather than seek direct confrontation. No threats. Just a show of smart power.
While his gradualist approach certainly will not be cheered by American conservatives, it is a style that is likely to score points among Chinese and other Asians who see a freshly reminted American president approaching them not with a clenched fist but with an open hand. He proposes refurbishing a long-faded American presence on the Asian mainland, competing again for its raw materials, investments and markets.
For a people who believe that nothing is coincidental, it matters little that Mr. Obama’s pre-Thanksgiving trip is timed to the Asia-Pacific Economic Forum in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. After all, he and other prominent Americans have not always attended those meetings. No, the journey’s real significance for the region is that it comes less than two weeks after he was re-elected; that is all the proof Asians need that Mr. Obama takes them seriously. And for the confrontation-averse Southeast Asians, the balancing influence of America is welcome as tensions with overbearing China rise.
What’s more, he will be meeting Southeast Asia’s ruling and policy elite just as the region is recovering from years of economic, social and political despair.
The perennially sad-sack Philippines, for example, has just reached a promising settlement to a decades-old civil war with the Muslims of Mindanao, in which more than 120,000 people have died.
Mr. Obama also plans to meet with Thailand’s prime minister, Yingluck Shinawatra, at a time when she has two deep concerns. The octogenarian King Bhumibol Adulyadej is in failing health, but public discussion of any plans for a succession is banned by the kingdom’s antediluvian lèse-majesté laws. And southern Thailand’s war against Muslim guerrillas continues unabated, with more than 5,000 dead in the last six years but with Thais on both sides deeply reluctant to see any armed foreign intervention.
In 2009, Christopher S. Bond, then a Republican senator from Missouri, and I wrote in “The Next Front” that the Muslims of Southeast Asia were far more likely than Muslims in other parts of the world to welcome Americans to live, work, study, teach and invest among them.
My return journeys this year convinced me anew that China’s intensifying efforts to establish hegemony have revived the region’s Sinophobia among most segments of its populations, while refreshing hopes that the Americans will return, this time in peace.
Only the United States — not Japan, not Russia, not Europe — possesses the interest and wherewithal to level the playing field that China has been tilting in the region, and help the local governments shut down their fledgling Islamist movements. “Bring your businesspeople, your tech experts, your professors, your investors — bring them all,” a Thai law professor who is a longtime friend encouraged me, as an American. “It’s cheap and it’s easy. Just leave the boots back in the barracks.”
What a deal.
Lewis M. Simons, a longtime Asia correspondent who has written for The Associated Press, The Washington Post and Knight-Ridder Newspapers, teaches journalism at the University of Alaska, Fairbanks.