Hillary in Asia: Can America Make-Over Its Image?
Posted Feb 22, 2009

Hillary in Asia: Can America Make-Over Its Image?

By Farish A. Noor

And so the make-over has begun: Hillary Clinton’s whirlwind tour of Asia that takes her to China, Korea, Japan and Indonesia may well mark the beginning of new relations with the East Asian economies whose goodwill towards America at the moment will be crucial in President Obama’s attempts to recover America’s lost prestige and bring about a much-needed economic recovery if he is to rescue his country from the brink of disaster.

That Hillary Clinton was assigned to this task is interesting, for it is noteworthy that this time round the Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs has had her world map cut up into chunks. Crucial regions such as Central Asia, Pakistan and India, for instance, are off Hillary’s plate, leaving her with much to do in Southeast and East Asia as well as the Arab world. Ironically her close contact with the Israeli lobby in Washington may serve as a negative factor when she has to show off the new face of America in Indonesia, the world’s most populous Muslim country.

But the task that has been left to Hillary is an unenviable one: For a start, there is the delicate balancing act between China and Japan that has to be played out successfully. America today, thanks to the uneven trade relations it enjoys with China, cannot afford to antagonise what will soon become the second biggest economic player on the planet as well as America’s most important trade ally. Due to the enormous amount of US cash dollar reserves that China has, the fate of the dollar now hangs on the whims of the Chinese government and market.

But then there is the worrying concern that the Japanese have, for if US-China political and trade relations improve at the expense of the former, Japan may well find itself relegated to secondary position in the fragile balance of military and economic power in East Asia. For decades now Japan has been America’s vital ally in the war against Communism and was a proxy front line state staring the might of China in the face. As China alters itself and assumes the ackward avatar of a Communist state with a Capitalist economy in all but name, what will the future hold for Japan?

Indonesia, however, is the most crucial country as far as America’s re-invention of itself goes. As the most populous Muslim country in the world how America is seen by Indonesia’s 200-million plus Muslims will define America’s new relationship with the Muslim world in general. Hillary’s visit to Indonesia was therefore seen as the primer to test the waters, and to pave the ground for the historic visit of Obama himself, who in Indonesia is practically adored as one of their own.

In Obama America now finds its best and most natural ambassador: His African-American origin and his childhood in Asia makes him the most qualified American president to date to play the role of bridge-builder. It is well known in policy circles across Southeast Asia that President Obama plans to make his vital speech to the Muslim world while he is in Indonesia. American policy makers hope therefore that Indonesians will welcome him with open arms, as this would be the first step in improving the image of America following the dark days of Bush junior, whose contribution to America’s image to the world came in the form of the barbed-wire fences of Guantanamo Bay.

What many of us have overlooked however is this: That while the world slowly sinks deeper into a global economic crisis, the American government is now turning to Asia for support and succour. The might of the world’s sole superpower that blasted Afghanistan back to the Middle-Ages and which reduced Iraq to rubble is now being defined and determined of developing countries in the South instead. As Obama seeks to define the new image of the new America that hopes to play the role of honest broker and equal partner in world politics, one wonders if the age of global hegemony is coming to an end, or being checked at least. One thing however is certain: that in its present state an America in economic crisis and suffering a credibility deficit after the mismanagement of the Bush government can no longer swagger around the world with a big stick.

As the once-hegemonic discourse of the ‘war on terror’ that was bandied about by the Bush administration gives way to the softer rhetoric of partnership and respect, a different America performs its make-over in public and realises that the rest of the world matters after all. And that may not be such a bad thing.


Dr. Farish (Badrol Hisham) Ahmad-Noor, Senior Fellow, S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technological University, Singapore