Obama Skeptics in Asia

Obama Skeptics in Asia

By Richard Halloran - November 9, 2008

Running through the worldwide acclaim for President-elect Barack Obama this week have been several threads of Asian skepticism, appeals, and even threats.

Chinese leaders sent congratulations that included a subtle reminder that they expected Obama to acknowledge their contentious claim to the self-governing island of Taiwan. Moreover, on the day Americans voted, the Chinese issued a policy paper on Latin America that the US has long considered its backyard.

A senior Foreign Ministry official, Yang Wanming, said the paper proposed "enhancing military cooperation" between China and Latin American nations. On the same day, China put on display for the first time its home-built J10 jet fighter in an air show.

And a commentator in the government-controlled China Daily urged Obama "to re-charter an American foreign policy that will move away from pre-emptive doctrine to one of resolving nation-to-nation disputes on the table and to embrace more consultation on the world arena while avoiding confrontations."

Across the Taiwan Strait, President Ma Ying-jeou weighed in with an appeal that "the long friendship between the United States and the Republic of China (Taiwan) will continue to strengthen and grow," according to the Foreign Ministry. The US is Taiwan's main ally.

But a spokesman for the opposition Democratic Progressive Party, Kuan Bi-ling, was dubious of Obama, saying: "The Republicans have leaned more toward Taiwan while the Democrats have leaned more toward China." He pointed to former Democratic President Bill Clinton's siding with China on the Taiwan issue.

From Japanese commentators flowed considerable anxiety. Yomiuri, Japan's largest circulating newspaper, said "so far, Obama has talked only in generalities." The paper worried that he would be protectionist. Asahi, a leftist paper, said that for Japanese, Obama was an "unknown quantity."

Yoshihisa Komori, a columnist in the conservative Sankei, called Obama "a frighteningly unknown politician" who would rely less on traditional alliances, such as that with Japan, and more on international organizations in foreign policy.

In South Korea, the largest newspaper, Chosun Ilbo, applauded Obama's election but added: "Yet Obama has shortcomings, such as scant diplomatic experience and no administrative career. He is also inclined to protectionist trade policies on behalf of the U.S. economy."

Filipinos split on Obama's stance on the 600 American troops posted in the southern Philippines to help the Philippine Armed Forces fight Moro insurgents and terrorists. Some urged Obama to keep the troops there, others urged him to withdraw them.

The Thai newspaper Nation quoted Obama: "Americans have sent a message to the world that we have never been just a collection of red states and blue states." The paper then lamented the bitter "red and yellow" divisions in Thailand today, wishing they "could correspond to blue and red in the US."

Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said he had written to Obama: "Many issues will claim your attention. May I make a case for the importance of Southeast Asia to the US, a region which is not unfamiliar to you," referring to Obama's childhood in neighboring Indonesia. A writer for the Straits Times, Joanna Lee, however, was skeptical of Obama's emphasis on hope: "Alas, I'm not sure hope is enough."

In New Delhi, the Times of India commented: "Obama will be a breath of fresh air in almost every part of the world..Why, then, is India keeping her fingers crossed?" The paper said: "There is little clarity on how the chips will fall on several issues..Pakistan, China, terrorism, nuclear issues, trade, all issues on which India has had a prickly relationship with the Democratic Party."

A columnist for The Australian, Greg Sheridan, wrote: "For Australia, Obama is a very mixed bag. Despite a couple of years in Indonesia as a kid, Obama has little knowledge of, or interest, in Asia." Pointing to President George Bush's support for Australia, Sheridan concluded: "Don't expect Obama to be anywhere near as mindful of Australia."

In two Asian towns, however, news of President-elect Obama's victory was greeted with undiluted elation. Indonesian students in an elementary school in the Menteng section of Jakarta,which Obama attended as a child, watched election returns on television, then erupted into the schoolyard to dance in the rain and shout "Obama, we love you."

And in the town of Obama in western Japan, population 32,281, dancers donned hula skirts to honor the president-elect who was born in Hawaii. They pranced in the streets in hopes that having a US president who shared their town's name would put it on the map for tourists.

Richard Halloran, a free lance writer in Honolulu, was a military correspondent for The New York Times for ten years. He can be reached at

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