Obama in Asia: The “savior” comes

This week United States president Barack Obama embarks on a 7-day Asian tour that will bring him to Japan, South Korea, Malaysia and the Philippines. Obama’s visit to Asia intends to send a clear message: the U.S. remains a strong strategic partner of its allies in the Asia-Pacific, a region whose balance is being stirred, even agitated, by China which is increasingly flexing its muscles in territorial disputes in East Asia, and staking its claim as an economic superpower.

But observers say this intended message comes muddled, rather than crystal clear. When Obama announced his “pivot to Asia” strategy in 2011 — an effort to “rebalance” U.S. foreign policy direction to Asia after decades of focus on the Middle East and Europe –- the U.S. perhaps did not anticipate an avalanche of crises such as the Arab spring. And even as Obama begins this week’s Asian swing, the U.S. is saddled with the unrest in Ukraine and how to deal with Russia.

Not to be forgotten, Obama’s Asia trip has been cancelled previously because of domestic problems, the most recent was in late 2013 when the White House was locked in a battle with the Capitol that led to the government shutdown. For some onlookers, this begs the question, so where’s this so-called pivot to Asia?

Then again, critics would say, who asked the U.S. to pivot to Asia in the first place?

America and the world

When talking about the U.S. with respect to its relationship with the rest of the world, I am reminded by a question that was posed to me by American Midwesterners at a journalists’ forum at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minnesota. This was a question that would repeatedly be asked of us foreign journalists on our trip across the U.S.: How does your country perceive the United States? How does the world look at the U.S.?

I would realize later on that the question was being posed not from a haughty standpoint. Middle America really had but a faint idea as to how the world looked at them, and they were really curious to know.

In one forum, I said that the phrase “the world’s savior” has been used several times during our trip to describe the U.S., sometimes in a plain and forthright manner, other times, with irony and derision.

Love-hate relationship

As a journalist from the Philippines I have some sense of where this image of the U.S. comes from, as well as some understanding of this love-hate relationship with the U.S. We’ve had a long history, I told our American audience, having been a colony of the U.S. for 45 years.

US-Philippine relations were off to a somewhat shaky start, to begin with, dragged as we were into the fray that was the Spanish-American War in 1898 that initially only involved Cuba (which was fighting to overthrow Spanish rule). Eventually, Spain ceded Cuba, and its other colonies including Puerto Rico, Guam and the Philippines, to the U.S. for $20 million.

The Philippines thought that the U.S. would quickly grant the country independence. But that would not be the case because the Philippines was placed under military control for fears that Filipinos were not yet ready for full democracy and unprepared to govern themselves and some foreign power might take advantage, so U.S. presence was necessary (a line that we continue to hear and debate about in today’s events). This began the saga of nationalist revolt against the U.S.

To be fair, I told our American audience, the American occupation did bring many gains to the Philippines: urban infrastructure, system of education, government structure, increase in trade, etc. But historians would also say American politics and party system became a breeding ground for the thirst for power and corruption that has become so pervasive in Philippine politics, just one of the downsides of American influence.

New security deal

When U.S. Pres. Obama arrives in Manila next week, he is expected to announce details of a new security deal agreed upon with the Philippines. Among those already reported by the New York Times and Reuters are the use of Philippine installations by U.S. troops for maritime and humanitarian operations, increase in presence of rotational troops, and boosting the Philippines’ defense capability amid tensions with China. This is a significant step since the U.S. military bases were booted out from Philippine shores in 1992.

Many things are still up in the air as far as the U.S.’s pivot to Asia is concerned. And as history reminds us, in every intervention, you take the good with the bad.

(end)

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