WHEN Barack Obama ducked out of two summits in Indonesia and Brunei a year ago, the credibility of the “pivot to Asia” he had proclaimed, giving the region greater importance in American foreign policy, took a big knock. This month he is due to show up at back-to-back gatherings in Beijing, Naypyidaw, the capital of Myanmar, and Brisbane in Australia, giving him a chance to hammer out the dent. It will be a struggle. The centrepiece of the economic aspect of the pivot, a regional free-trade agreement called the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), is still not a done deal. Some Asians remain unsure about whether the strategic, military pivot really amounts to much. And there is yet another difficulty: the perception in Asia that America’s faith in the universality of its ideals of freedom and democracy has weakened.
American leaders used to raise the issues of human rights and democracy in Asia at almost every opportunity, especially where China was concerned, but also in Indonesia, Myanmar, Vietnam and elsewhere. That they no longer hector so loudly is welcome to many governments. But it seems to jar with American professions of continued leadership.
The reticence reflects two trends. One is that the world seems to be in flames elsewhere. The rise of Islamic State (IS), the spread of Ebola and the forced partition of Ukraine: all have hijacked America’s attention. When American leaders have microphones thrust in their faces, questions about Asia are not the first they have to answer, and when they look at Asia it is through the prism of other global problems.
The other is that America’s strategic and economic ambitions in Asia have a higher priority than promoting American political values. Take America’s muted reaction to a number of recent political developments around Asia. In Hong Kong, where student-led protesters this week marked a month of sit-ins on big thoroughfares, American officials have voiced support for their main demand of genuine universal suffrage in the election for the territory’s chief executive in 2017, rather than the sham version offered by China.Yet Mr Obama has held his tongue on the protests. To speak out might encourage the paranoid tendency in China that sees the unrest as part of an American-led plot to weaken and ultimately topple Communist Party rule. To stay silent, however, suggests that Mr Obama does not see Hong Kong as important enough to risk adding yet another complication to a fraught relationship with China.
America’s president will also have to think hard what to say about Myanmar when he goes to the East Asia Summit held there. Liberalising reforms since 2011 have been held out as the great success of his “unclenched-fist” policy towards the country, with the strategic benefit of forging a partnership with a place that had been stuck in China’s orbit. But the mood has soured. Hopes have faded of amending a constitution that guarantees the army a blocking minority in parliament and bars the opposition leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, from the presidency. Some now doubt that the general election due next year will even take place. To emphasise the many positive changes in Myanmar may look starry-eyed; to harp on about the setbacks would blur a rare foreign-policy bright spot.
Even in Thailand, where the army staged its latest coup in May, America’s position has not been entirely clear. It has condemned the putsch, called for the restoration of democracy and suspended a modest amount of military aid to its old ally. But it has stepped back from a threat to move the annual “Cobra Gold” joint Thai-American military exercises out of the country next year. America’s links with Thailand have withstood countless changes of government. It would not want to jeopardise them entirely, and push Thailand deeper into China’s embrace.
Similarly, American policy toward Malaysia has been coloured by realpolitik. Opposition politicians and others identify a worrying repressive tendency in the government, with an archaic sedition law used to hound its opponents. And this week saw the culmination of a ludicrous trial on charges of sodomy of the opposition leader, Anwar Ibrahim (whose coalition won the popular vote, though not a majority of seats, in last year’s general election). America, however, has been largely silent about all this, and, in Malaysia in April, Mr Obama did not even find time to meet Mr Anwar. Najib Razak, the prime minister, is an important regional ally—an elected, moderate Muslim ready to speak out against IS, and to take on domestic lobbies to bring Malaysia into the TPP. Moreover, Mr Obama and he are said to get on.
A more natural partner might be another moderate Muslim democrat, Joko Widodo, known as Jokowi, the new president of Indonesia, whose ascension to power as an outsider buoyed by grassroots support recalls Mr Obama’s own. America’s secretary of state, John Kerry, did attend the inauguration last month, and held a 30-minute meeting. But it seems he concentrated on America’s agenda—climate change, IS and Ebola—rather than Jokowi’s, or on how America might assist his shaky new administration.
Playing down contentious issues of domestic politics in favour of international co-operation seems to make sense at a time of shifting global power and heightened tension. But it has a cost: it squanders part of America’s “soft power”, a great asset. Many in Asia believe that China is the waxing power and America the waning one. But America remains the place that far more young people want to visit and hope their own country can emulate. For all its flaws and mis-steps, it represents not just economic and military might, but an ideal to aspire to, in a way that China does not. And when American leaders appear to give less weight to that ideal, they not only diminish America’s attractions, they also lend more credence to the idea of its relative economic and military decline. By Banyan for The Economist