Feeling unloved at home after a walloping in yesterday’s mid-term elections, US President Barack Obama is heading to Asia – as far from America as you can get – in search of a sympathetic audience. Fortunately for him, he’s likely to get one.
Obama’s 10-day escape, which begins on Friday, will take in old pals Japan and South Korea (host of next week’s G20 summit), as well as India and Indonesia. New Delhi and Jakarta are currently more acquaintances of the US than allies, but Obama’s mission is clear: to make them love America.
The President will find his Asian hosts a lot more receptive to his yes-we-cans than the beltway voters back home. In Indonesia, he has a head start: he lived there for four years as a boy (in fact, Obama may even be Indonesian, the right-wingers fume). Yet both Indonesia and India – as well as many countries in Southeast Asia – feel well disposed towards the US for one simple reason: they don’t want China to dominate the Asia-Pacific.
“China has pushed too hard in the South China Sea, where it co-exists with a number of Southeast Asian countries,” says Tim Huxley, executive director of IISS-Asia. “This has worsened ties with Vietnam, alienated the Philippines and even brought a reaction from Malaysia.” For this reason, the Obama administration recognises that it has an opportunity to bolster its standing in Asia at China’s expense.
As Southeast Asia’s biggest country and biggest democracy, Indonesia – which is also iffy about China – represents a tantalizing prize for American diplomacy. Offers of development aid, military equipment and a timely commitment to disaster relief, all sprinkled with some of that Obama stardust, should win the Indonesians round.
There is no Sino-US competition over India’s affections: New Delhi is even more suspicious of Beijing than Washington. Nonetheless, India will be a tougher nut for Obama to crack, since relations between the world’s two biggest democracies have never been particularly close. Obama is hoping to change that – especially now that booming India has around $80bn (€57bn) to spend on military equipment over the next five years.
In particular, the President is determined that an Indian contract for 126 fighter jets, worth upwards of $10bn, should go America’s way. He’ll find that it will take more than charm and homages to Gandhi to seal the deal, however. “If Obama thinks he can just come here and sell us F-16s, then that’s a no-go,” says Arun Sahgal, of the United Services Institution of India. “We are looking for leverage: to get geopolitical assurances regarding the Chinese challenge, to get the price down, to get technology transfer. They have to put on the table what we need.”