September 12, 2012
ASEAN, the United States and China: Forward
by Karim Raslan (09-11-12)@http://www.thestar.com.my
Under President Barack Obama, the US has made a substantial tilt Asia-wards. South-East Asians, therefore, need a greater understanding of both American and Chinese political and cultural life as these two great powers will have an even greater influence on our lives.
IN both ancient Greece and Rome, people were wary of the power of rhetoric – speech-making in politics. There was a combination of admiration as well as fear for those whose persuasive powers were highly-developed, impassioned and determined.
People understood that unscrupulous leaders were able – by dint of their eloquence – to turn defeat into victory, poverty into prosperity and offering hope where none existed.
Last week in Charlotte, North Carolina, at the Democratic Party’s National Convention, two leaders – former US president Bill Clinton and the incumbent President Barack Obama dazzled the attendees, if not the entire nation as they laid out the case for Obama’s second term in office.
With an economy still mired in recession and with unemployment at historic highs, both Obama and Clinton – communicators par excellence – were nonetheless still able to present a remarkably vigorous and expansive case for the Democratic Party, proof if ever we needed one, of the power of rhetoric.
Contrast Obama’s soaring, church pulpit-style performance with Republican nominee Mitt Romney’s dull, pedantic delivery and we can see the fundamental challenge facing the Republicans.
Obama connects and inspires where Romney merely informs and plods, his unimpressive delivery further reinforcing doubts about his business interests and his shady tax returns – all this despite entirely justifiable criticisms of the current administration’s stewardship of the economy.
At the same time, the Democratic Party is riding the wave of the future: ethnically diverse and plural, it reflects the fast-diminishing role of the white, Caucasian male in American public life with Hispanics (like the youthful San Antonio Mayor Julian Castro), Asian and African-Americans (First Lady Michelle Obama) very much at the forefront.
This year, Obama was more nuanced, but eager to persuade America that his passion (as well as suitability for re-election) was undiminished. Whilst this was not his best speech by any measure, his oratorical prowess was still evident:
“I never said this journey would be easy, and I won’t promise that now. Yes, our path is harder, but it leads to a better place. Yes, our road is longer, but we travel it together. We don’t turn back. We leave no one behind. We pull each other up.”
For us in South-East Asia, Obama is doubly important.First off, born and partially raised in Hawaii, he is the first president of the Pacific Era. Added to that is his personal connection through his mother and stepfather with Indonesia, imbuing him with a deep emotional connection to our part of the world.
Under Obama, the United States has made a substantial tilt Asia-wards. This is not a passing fad, driven by a president’s naïve memories of his past. Realpolitik is at work as Washington recalibrates its foreign policy to match the economic realities of a fast growing Asia-Pacific.
As US Secretary of Defence Leon Panetta said at this year’s Shangri-La Dialogue: “In this century, the United States recognises that our prosperity and our security depends even more on the Asia-Pacific region. Our goal is to work closely with all of the nations of this region to confront common challenges and to promote peace, prosperity and security for all nations in the Asia-Pacific region.”
We have to realise that whatever happens in November, America’s heightened engagement with Asia isn’t just a short-term, Democrat initiative.
Romney may posture about confronting China but even he acknowledges its economic and military might and his platform speaks about deepening alliances with regional powers in the Pacific.
Notwithstanding Romney’s bold protestations that Russia represents the US’ greatest challenge, any future Republican Secretary of State will continue the groundwork laid out by Hillary Clinton in the region.
America is therefore not likely to close itself off from the region anytime soon and we in South-East Asia had better get used to the added attention because we are no longer a global backwater. Instead, we are the “main” game.
South-East Asians, therefore, need a greater understanding of both American and indeed Chinese political and cultural life.Like it or not, these two great powers will have an even greater influence on our lives in moving forward.