Journalists discuss implications of Obama's trip to Asia

Friday, November 20, 2009 | 6:27 p.m. CST; updated 6:30 p.m. CST, Saturday, November 21, 2009

Stuart Loory, Lee Hills Chair in Free-Press Studies, Missouri School of Journalism: President Barack Obama has finished his four-nation, eight-day trip to Asia. The three issues of controversy involving China, the emerging super power, are: climate change, trade imbalances and China’s attitude on stopping the push toward nuclear weapons production by Iran and North Korea. No important agreements were reached and the Chinese carefully controlled Obama’s access to the Chinese people and vice versa. The big issue in Japan was moving one of the main military bases on the island of Okinawa. There was no agreement other than to continue discussing the problem. In South Korea there are some of the same trade problems that create controversy in China. And, in Singapore, the president met a stonewall on the question of climate change. Obama did meet with the leader of Myanmar but there was no indication that anything was said that might win freedom for the human rights leader Aung San Suu Kyi, who is under house arrest. Throughout the trip it was almost as if the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, both in Asia, did not exist. What does this trip say about Obama as president or about the changing American role in the world?

David Sanger, chief Washington correspondent, New York Times, Washington, D.C.: Obama came into office very much as the anti-Bush president. He was not going to go around the world and make demands and lectures. That worked quite well in the Muslim world and Europe; on this trip he may have had the tone slightly wrong. The Chinese were looking for signs that the U.S., as a big borrower from China, may no longer have the sway at summits like this as it had 10 or 15 years ago. Obama did not, at least publicly, raise many of the human rights and trade issues; he might have done that privately. The fact that he didn’t do it publicly created the image that he was sitting and listening rather than setting an agenda.

Loory: How are the Chinese looking at this?

Peter Ford, Beijing correspondent, Christian Science Monitor, Beijing, China: The idea that Obama would have gotten anywhere with the Chinese by lecturing them on human rights in public is absurd. The Chinese are not going to be on board with a lot of issues the Americans would like them to be. It is true they got nothing on sanctions of Iran; no help at all in Afghanistan, which was another hope, or the exchange rate. These issues will take a lot of patient work. There are two levels of this trip. One was the level of the joint statement, worked out long before Obama got here; this was the longest and broadest joint statement for decades. The middle level bureaucrats on both sides did that and they seem to have reached a lot of agreements and laid ground for future cooperation. The second level was disappointing, there were some hopes that Obama and (Chinese President) Hu Jintao would take a broad strategic look at the crises facing the world and how they could work together. One certainly didn’t get that impression.

Loory: You’ve seen a lot of these trips. What impressed you about this trip with President Obama?

Don Kirk, Korea correspondent, Christian Science Monitor, Seoul, South Korea: Obama got a rousing reception from American troops at the Osan Air Base south of Seoul (on Thursday). He did a lot better in Korea than he did in China and Japan. Obama and President Lee Myung-Bak were eye-to-eye on dealing with North Korea. He announced that the envoy Stephen Bosworth would go to Pyongyang to negotiate a return to the six-party talks on December 8. Also, Lee indicated some leeway on the free trade agreement, with U.S. doubts about the increasing flood of South Korean products doing more damage to U.S. manufacturers.

Loory: Obama was criticized in this country for bowing before the emperor, and no real agreement was reached on the air base in Okinawa. What happened there?

Eric Johnson, deputy editor, Japan Times, Osaka, Japan: There were two basic reactions. First, the reaction among members of the general public ranged from cautiously hopeful to positive. In Tokyo, the president gave a speech Saturday in which he recalled his first visit to Japan as a young boy. He was generally portrayed in the Japanese media as being in touch with Japanese people to an extent that the previous president was not. He recognized the purpose of the visit was more about establishing a positive image than tackling thorny issues. The main one being a 2006 agreement that calls for a facility (a Marine air base) to be built on the northern part of Okinawa by 2014 (this would replace one in the middle of an urban area). But local opposition is so great it is extremely doubtful the facility will ever be built. Neither Washington nor Tokyo has a plan B, and Washington continues to insist that the current plan is the only viable option. This has been a problem since 1996 when the U.S. and Japan first agreed to replace it. Eight prime ministers and three presidents later, there has still been no progress.

Loory: Explain why the Japanese want it moved.

Johnston: Imagine a marine base in the middle of Kansas City with planes taking off and landing literally a few yards above houses. Noise pollution is a big problem. It wasn’t originally that way, but over the years it got more crowded around the base and therefore more dangerous. About 75 percent of all U.S. bases in Japan are on Okinawa—less than three percent of Japan’s land mass. Okinawans feel that they have an unusually large burden.

Loory: While the President visited Singapore, he met with the general who is the leader of Myanmar, formerly Burma. Did that short conversation have an impact with the leader of Myanmar?

Aung Zaw, editor, Irrawaddy News Magazine, Chiang Mai, Thailand: It was fortunate that Obama delivered the message to Burmese leaders, but there is deep skepticism whether the Burmese will deliver or make any concessions. I’m not sure whether Burmese leaders will listen to Obama.

Loory: What was the president hoping to accomplish in Singapore on the climate control issue, and what was the outcome?

Sanger: They agreed that at the upcoming Copenhagen summit there would be no definitive agreement and no agreement on the hardest issues. Countries around the world have been working up to Copenhagen for several years and now, within a month of it, have concluded this isn’t going to work. So, they made vague agreements in principal and kicked down the road all the major issues. In the end, no country is going to make significant concessions until the U.S. and China come to a significant agreement themselves, which does not appear in the offing.

Johnston: The Japanese didn’t press the issue too much because Japan’s new targets under the Hatayama Administration are a lot stricter than what the Americans are pursuing.

Kirk: Korea has said they will voluntarily reduce greenhouse gas emissions by four percent of 2005 levels by 2020. They’re saying the government is announcing a 30 percent cut from its forecast amount, the highest level recommended by the panel on climate change for developing and emerging countries.

Loory: Who has to go first in changing its policies, the U.S. or China?

Ford: In some sense, the Chinese have already gone first. The Chinese have done an enormous amount in developing renewable and clean energy technologies. They’re the largest producer of solar panels, by far the largest producers of wind power generators and users of wind power. They have a long way to go to reduce their carbon intensity. They say upfront: we’re still developing and we’re going to keep using coal because it is the most abundant and cheapest source of energy we have. The Chinese are moving on this because they concluded that they stand to lose. If the temperature goes up between two and three degrees by 2050, they lose about twenty percent of their agricultural output and almost as much of their water resources.

Loory: Obama presented himself as somebody who is of the American people but who also has strong international connections. How was his image received?

Ford: He wasn’t given much of a chance to project his image in China. The Chinese official press gave him remarkably little play.

Kirk: One did get the impression of a populist leader, which he may not have had the chance to get in China or Japan.

Johnston: The questions that got the most attention were about the possibility of (Obama) visiting Hiroshima and Nagasaki, which would make him the first sitting U.S. president ever to do so. He replied that he had no immediate travel plans but a trip would be meaningful.

Producers of Global Journalist are MU journalism graduate students Jared Gassen, Brian Jarvis, Sananda Sahoo, Melissa Ulbricht, and Megan Wiegand. The transcriber is Pat Kelley.



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