Obama Takes a Bow?

Critics of the Obama administration were delighted at the images from the president’s recent trip to Asia. There was the deep bow before Emperor Akihito. There was the group photo with the head of the Burmese junta. There was the deferential press conference with Chinese President Hu Jintao.

“There is no reason for an American president to bow to anyone,” Dick Cheney said. In China, “Obama was deferential to the point of looking weak,” USA Today editorialized.

According to the critics, the Obama administration is bending over backwards — and sometimes forwards — to play well with others. We are kowtowing to our allies and our adversaries alike.

In fact, the president on this trip did quite the opposite. Aside from these superficial signs of protocol, Obama pushed aggressively on a number of issues with Japan, China, Burma, and South Korea. The current U.S. president is certainly a more diplomatic fellow than his immediate predecessor. His words and gestures often conceal, rather than reveal, the power of the country he represents. But the power is still there.

In Japan, for instance, the United States is trying to push through a new military base in Okinawa to replace the current Futenma Air Base. The new Democratic Party of Japan government has not been enthusiastic at all about the new base, or about paying over $6 billion to cover the costs of moving U.S. Marines from Japan to Guam. Obama first dispatched Pentagon chief Robert Gates to Tokyo to pressure the new government. And then, on this trip, the president insisted that Hatoyama abide by the agreement signed by his predecessor — even though it goes against the wishes of the Okinawan people.

At this next stop, the ASEAN summit in Singapore, the president appeared in the usual group photo with the leaders of the Southeast Asian nations. But Obama went out of his way not to shake hands with Burmese Prime Minister Thein Sein. And when it came time to speak, in a closed session away from reporters, Obama condemned the junta and called for the release of dissident Aung San Suu Kyi.

Prior to visiting China for the first time, Obama declined an opportunity to meet with the Tibetan spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama. On his trip, the president did not schedule any meetings with Chinese dissidents.

But the president did raise human rights in both public (at a town hall event) and in private (with President Hu). He saved his firepower, though, for the economic and geopolitical agendas. Washington continues to pressure Beijing to revalue its currency to even out the trade imbalance between the two countries. Obama is also pushing China to support the Afghanistan operation and use its relationship with Pakistan in the service of fighting terrorism.

Finally, in Seoul, Obama highlighted the importance of engaging North Korea and negotiating a comprehensive package to achieve denuclearization. The president announced the upcoming visit to Pyongyang of a high-level envoy Stephen Bosworth.

But in other ways, Washington is still playing hardball. For instance, the United States continues to maintain sanctions against North Korea. Bosworth’s delegation, meanwhile, has a very narrow brief: to revive the six-party format of discussions. In other words, the Obama administration is making a welcome but only slight nod in the direction of negotiations while maintaining a strong containment approach.

Meanwhile, the administration continues to push hard to open up the South Korean market to U.S. cars and agricultural goods.

Sure, Obama has tried to be more culturally sensitive than his tone-deaf predecessor. He is attempting, for instance, to resolve through talking some of the entrenched conflicts in the region (North Korea, Burma). And he is exploring how partnership with China might achieve progress on global goals (economic, environmental) where rivalry would simply be counterproductive. China can’t be pushed around. It holds too much American debt. So Obama is wisely treading with care in this part of the world.

But let’s not forget that the United States still wields enormous military and economic power in Asia — tens of thousands of troops, overwhelming military hardware, the purchasing power of the American market. Obama might have put a velvet glove on the U.S. fist. But don’t be fooled by the bows and handshakes and the friendly photo ops. When it comes to securing military bases, prying open closed markets, soliciting contributions for its war efforts in Afghanistan, and squeezing recalcitrant countries like North Korea, the United States continues to throw its weight around in Asia.

John Feffer is the co-director of Foreign Policy In Focus.