Obama’s foreign policy rests on the idea that the world has entered an era in which major powers can work together on such issues as climate change and trade, and that nations can always find some common ground. Arriving in Tokyo, the president emphasised his shared roots with many Asians, and suggested that a new era of co-operation in the region is around the corner. ‘I am an American president who was born in Hawaii and lived in Indonesia as a boy,’ Obama said, calling himself ‘America’s first Pacific president’.
But across Asia, that common ground will be hard to find. The region is locked in old-fashioned power rivalries: over maritime strength, over common borders, and other issues little different from the flashpoints of the 20th or even the 19th century. Both India and China are boosting their defence spending, and skirmishing over disputed regions on the border of Tibet. The Dalai Lama, who lives in India, last week visited one of these Indian regions, Tawang, sparking an angry response from Beijing. Freed from old restrictions placed by Washington, the Indian armed forces have gone on a shopping spree, and are now probably the largest customer for many American defence contractors. China also has ongoing border disputes with the Philippines and Vietnam, who have overlapping claims to the South China Sea.
Meanwhile, though Japan officially does not have an army, its Self-Defence Forces are upgrading their arms to keep pace with China, while Russia has in recent years reasserted its strength as a Pacific power. Even smaller countries, like Singapore and Malaysia, feel like they have to arm up. Oh, and then there’s North Korea, which already has a nuclear weapon and last week skirmished at sea with South Korean naval patrol boats.
When you talk to Asian policy-makers, they usually sound more like Henry Kissinger or Otto von Bismarck than like Obama: such co-operation as there is – trade ties, business and cultural links – is nice, but it doesn’t overwhelm suspicion of the neighbours.