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What Pacific President?

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In Brief

A year ago Barack Obama declared himself the first ‘Pacific President’ but so far his engagement with the region leaves a lot to be desired.

President Obama hosted the second US-ASEAN Summit in New York recently. Many are hopeful the insubstantial two-hour lunch meeting on the sidelines of the United Nations will signal a turning point in the Obama Administration’s approach to Asia.


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So far the President has visited Europe six times and Asia only once. His European adventures have included sprucing a hometown Olympic bid and accepting the Nobel Peace Prize with one hand while saluting off more troops into harm’s way with the other. While some of his trips across the Atlantic have taken him to important gatherings of the G20 and NATO, declaring war on nuclear arms along the way, it is Asia – not Europe – that should be centre of the world’s attention right now.

But first the President must turn around a damaging reputation as a bad guest in Asia.

His singular trip to the region was cut short last November in the wake of the Fort Hood shootings causing uproar among APEC delegates worried that a double standard was at work. His next planned trip to Indonesia and Australia has now been cancelled twice due to other domestic political considerations.

Much has been written of President Obama’s exotic upbringing in both Indonesia and Hawaii and there is no doubt this has influenced his views. But his experience in the region is hardly unique among those who occupy the top job.

Herbert Hoover lived in Australia at one point. Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan both hailed from the Pacific coastline, and John F. Kennedy and George H.W. Bush served in the Pacific during World War II. Bill Clinton chose Asia as the destination for his highly symbolic inaugural trip overseas and on current trends it is hard to argue that George W. Bush’s engagement with the region doesn’t stack up better than that of his successor.

The reality is that, despite the rhetoric, the Obama Administration continues to be guided by an ‘Atlantic-centric’ approach to foreign policy forged in the aftermath of the Second World War. It is an approach that sees Washington, London, Moscow, Paris and Berlin as the great capitals of the world and the time zones that adorn the walls of the White House Situation Room.

But the goalposts have shifted eastwards and it is time President Obama lined up for goal.

By 2020 the world’s four largest cities – Seoul, Mumbai, Jakarta and Karachi – will all be in Asia. The region already houses the two most populous countries, China and India, and the biggest Islamic state is Indonesia.

Economically, Asia has become the engine room of world’s economy pumping out half of global GDP and nurturing growing markets which could help drive the US out of its economic downturn. Asia also has three of the five largest militaries and will shortly account for a quarter of all global military spending. Even the nuclear and security threats posed by rogue states like North Korea or from an escalation between India and Pakistan far outweigh anything going on elsewhere.

Up until recently the United States was only a member of two of the  regional institutions including the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC), the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN), the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF), and the East Asia Summit (EAS).

With the advent of an expanded EAS – in part due to the influence of Foreign Minister Kevin Rudd’s concept of an Asia Pacific community – these institutions appear to set the scene for a more regionally engaged United States.

In November the G20 Summit will be held in South Korea with the annual APEC Meeting immediately afterwards in Japan. Unfortunately President Obama will ditch his first EAS in Vietnam a few weeks earlier because of its proximity to the all important November midterm elections.

A trip to Indonesia has now being announced for November as well and India is being squeezed in too. Australia will be held over until 2011 with Secretary Clinton due to visit in November for the annual Defence & Foreign Minister Talks.
More importantly, next year the United States will play host to APEC in Hawaii. Like any gathering they organise it will surely be good a show, especially in President Obama’s old stomping ground during his youth and his favourite holiday destination as Commander-in-Chief.

The reality is we are currently in the middle of a great geo-political shift, and it will require fresh thinking from the United States foreign policy community in order for the country to remain regionally relevant.

So hopefully those of us left wondering where is the Pacific we were promised won’t have to wait too long.

Thom Woodroofe was the 2009 Young Victorian of the Year and founder of Left Right Think-Tank. He is the youngest member of the Australian American Leadership Dialogue and a non-resident Associate Fellow of the Asia Society in New York.

One response to “What Pacific President?”

  1. The photo shows two politicians at the top of their game, but now due to domestic economic incompetence, one was deposed by his own party and the other looks likely to be a one term lame duck president. Lots of hot air and playing to interest groups but no actual credible policies. Neither had the backbone to manage their own economy, and neither has any useful input into Asia Pacific. We live in an era of hollow men.

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