Home Commentaries
What an Obama Presidency means for East Asia

Updated On: Jun 16, 2009

Jusuf Wanandi,  JAKARTA POST, Fri, 06/12/2009 2:03 PM
The United States is a very lucky country. When crises and malaise struck, the US got the leader she needed. This is how President Obama’s election is to be seen. It came about after a “depressed” period of eight years under President George W. Bush, partly due to the trauma of Sept. 11 that had magnified the unilateral tendencies and the triumphalism of the Bush-Cheney Administration. This had resulted in an isolated United States and a deeply divided nation. 
President Obama fundamentally changed that situation. His personality and leadership are exactly what is needed for the 21st century. The US is still the primus interpares among nations and her leadership is still very much needed (whether in overcoming the economic/financial crisis or the Middle East, the Iran or the Pakistan-Afghanistan conflicts), but President Obama is acknowledging and accepting the fact that the US can no longer do it alone. 
This is true in our region too, where the danger of proliferation in East Asia, due to the North Korean nuclear weapons development, has been overcome mainly through the Six-Party Talks. Obama has shaped this open and multilateral outlook due to his exposure to different cultures and values, having lived in an environment of diversity and differences in Indonesia and Hawaii; he had an African father and an Indonesian stepfather and a strict but loving American mother and grandmother. 
His personality and attitude have already changed a lot of perceptions about the US worldwide. This is most fortunate for a United States faced with a severe economic crisis that has spread around the world and requires global cooperation and global solutions. The stigma of a “rogue” state employing unilateralist policies has started to be reversed and the US is looked upon more sympathetically. 
Many around the world are willing to give the US and President Obama time to implement change and to help solve some of the problems he is facing. Especially for Muslims, Israel-Palestine relations are of paramount importance and the expectation is that the US will become more evenhanded and will be able to put pressure on Israel to accept a two-state solution, starting with halting the West Bank settlement by Israel on Palestine territory. In promising this in Cairo last week in his epoch-making speech to the Muslim community, he addressed the most important problem for the Muslim community worldwide. 
His willingness to move on this very difficult question evenhandedly demonstrates his preparedness to put his political capital at risk, while reasserting US values and idealism, namely fairness and justice. 
However, President Obama’s limitations should also be recognized. Yes, he continues to enjoy a very high popularity rating of more than 70 percent and he has been willing to use it. But so far, the Republicans in Congress have not been willing to be bipartisan and, in many cases concerning the economy and on human rights/rule of law problems, he has also been questioned by the left wing within his own Democratic Party. 
President Obama needs to show early successes, especially in stabilizing the financial sector, to move on to resolving the housing crisis and to arrest the downturn, to be able to create a turnaround in early 2010. Only then can he move forward on the programs that he has prepared in many other fields. 
He needs success stories overseas and the support of friends and allies, so that the burden and guilt 
is not felt by America alone. If we really think that American leadership is important, then we should do our part. 
In East Asian countries, trust has been regained in the US and its policies. Obama has reached out to the region by sending Secretary Clinton first to East Asia, having Japanese Prime Minister Taro Aso as his first guest and meeting Chinese President Hu Jintao and President Lee Myung-bak from the Republic of Korea at the G-20 London Summit. He is currently preparing for, and looking forward to, his first trip to East Asia to attend the APEC Summit in Singapore (in November), and around that time he will visit Indonesia and China.
His presidency has been received with great enthusiasm in Indonesia, where he is seen to be the closest to Indonesia that any US president could be, since he lived in Jakarta for four years during his youth. Indonesia is preparing for the visit to elevate the bilateral relationship with the US by taking the initiative to establish a comprehensive partnership in various important fields: Political dialogues and consultations, education, trade and development, as well as military-to-military relations.
To predict his policies on East Asia, one needs to know that he believes that East Asia is, and will become, a more important player in the global arena, economically as well as politically. 
The solution of the economic crisis will depend in part on East Asia, particularly China, their two allies, Japan and Korea, as well as cooperation with ASEAN and India. Many issues, including in the political and security fields, depend among others on the relationship with China as well as US allies. The North Korean nuclear issue is a clear example, and this can be overcome only in cooperation with the East Asian region.
Jusuf Wanandi
About the author: 

The writer is vice chairman of the Board of Trustees, CSIS Foundation, Jakarta.

Related Article