The best thing the Obama Administration did for Asia did not happen in Asia. Sure it was important that the president announced the movement of troops to Australia. Equally so was the announcement of the Trans Pacific Partnership which could lead to greater trade liberalization and is a powerful way to tie allies together. Finally the formalization of a trilateral relationship among Japan, India and the United States is a strategically significant move. The problem with these diplomatic strokes is what it always was: how committed is President Obama to doing the hard work of properly resourcing the military requirements of this strategy and taking on his party to pass more free trade agreements?
These policies in Asia are important. But the Obama policies that will have the most significance for Asia happened in the Middle East. However clumsy and half-hearted President Obama either actively contributed to or supported the removal of Middle East dictators. During the Bush years commentators here and in Europe found it convenient to pretend that President Bush's freedom agenda was a radical departure from American foreign policy led by a radical ideologue. Now President Obama, supposedly the anti-Bush, put a stamp on his own freedom agenda. The message to China received by both its dictators and its reformers is that, after exhausting all other options, America stands for freedom.
This a particularly important message from an administration that went out of its way to downplay concern over human rights abuses with China. To my knowledge, while president, Obama has not met with a single Chinese dissident active in China. But with the Arab Spring, despite its convulsions, and the toppling of Muammar al-Qaddafi, with all its uncertainties, Obama has retained the mantle of leader of a liberal world order.
Eventually the peaceful resolution of the Sino-American competition depends on political change in China. While America has limited means to push China toward liberalization, it certainly is not lost on Chinese leaders and citizens, who badly seek the respect of other great nations, that China remains one of the last dictatorships. Perhaps that will be the catalyst for change in China.
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