Less than 300 miles from the Japanese capital of Tokyo rests a small town named ‘Obama’. And in that tiny neighborhood, both young and old danced in the streets and celebrated last November when Barack Obama took home the 2008 U.S. Presidential election. Just off the heels of the one-year anniversary of that historic day, our country’s first Black President embarks on a bold, complex and challenging trip to Asia. Unlike past Presidents, Obama must maintain a delicate balance between our economic interests in the region during such a critical global financial crisis, and broader human rights concerns in countries like China. Our country’s 44th however, has one secret weapon that just may assist him on this ambitious mission: his own personal Asia-Pacific connection.
In addition to his days in Hawaii, young Obama spent several years as a child in Jakarta, Indonesia, fully immersing himself in the culture and livelihood of the people. Thanks to his mother’s humanitarian aid work, he received exposure to the world from the onset, which unquestionably shaped his diplomatic prowess, intellectual depth and ability to open – and expand – dialogue. And it is precisely those unique characteristics that are shaping and driving the President’s goals as he forges new relationships with emerging countries, and reinvigorates some old ones.
As if two wars with no clear end in sight weren’t difficult enough, our President also inherited the worst economic crisis in modern history, and a larger, global financial catastrophe. After years of Wall St. greed, lack of oversight and unregulated loopholes, the United States will attempt to focus on developing and maintaining ties in a region that leads the way in economic growth. Obama’s challenge is in essence twofold: tackle key global issues like clean energy and job growth, while simultaneously maintaining our stamp as a leader in Asia.
It’s an extremely tough and unfair predicament for a new President. Facing unprecedented hurdles that were in many ways created or exasperated by the last administration, Obama will now have to welcome emerging powers like China, with reassurance that they will continue to have our back. Virtually indebted to the communist superpower, the U.S. – and in turn Obama – are forced to push other issues like human rights to the backburner as we continue to maintain our vital relationship. Delaying a meeting with his Holiness the Dalai Lama for this precise reason, Obama must now instead stress the importance of China’s role on the world stage and our intricate ties to one another. Because of policies and practices he again inherited, the President will also have to bypass discussions surrounding free-trade agreements in South Korea or the issue of Tibet itself.
As Obama leads this seven-day trip to places like Japan, Singapore, China and South Korea, let us not underemphasize the enormous task at hand. And let us underscore the fact that many of these complex problems were in large part created under Bush policies that this President must now rectify. But thankfully, if there was ever anyone who could poignantly juggle this delicate Asian relationship, it is none other than the man who met the world with open arms as a child, and who the world now in turn embraces everywhere he goes.