Hillary’s Asia Trek: Symbols and Substance

By Graeme Dobell

Hillary Clinton’s Asia trek offers some hints at how the Asia game is played, and at America’s ability to leverage the privilege of being a foreign white devil (a gweilo).

More on that in a moment. But first, which Asian power puts the greatest effort into measuring and weighing the symbols and silences of power relationships? Is it China, Japan, the Koreas or ASEAN? My list would be:

1.North Korea

2. China and Japan (equal second)

3. South Korea

4. ASEAN (with the ASEANs expending much of their energy on the relationships between the 10 countries of Southeast Asia).

North Korea tops the symbols-and-silences list because having little real strength, one of the few ways Pyongyang can project itself is with shadow play. Asia’s hereditary Marxist dynasty can signal the status of talks by whether the North Korean official is standing on the top or the bottom step of a building when greeting a foreign interlocutor.

Hillary Clinton deftly played the gweilo card by ignoring a tacit taboo to talk about who will succeed the ailing Kim Jong-il. Clinton was demonstrating a mastery of the outsider’s privilege — to acknowledge the hierarchy measures employed by Asian powers, but then refuse to be confined by the system. The gweilo can play to the conventions or pointedly ignore them.

Hillary’s trek was a masterful example of visit symbolism. Going first to Japan merely proves that George W Bush set a symbolic standard. Bill Clinton went to China first, causing the Japanese to huff and the Republicans to puff. George W always went to Tokyo first.

Is there any real significance in going first to Tokyo or first to Beijing? Well, if it matters to Japan and it matters to China, then it does carry weight in the symbols and silences game. Playing the visit card, and being prepared to play up its significance, at least shows a willingness to engage.

Clinton and her planners demonstrated exquisite touch by making the second leg of the trip a long haul to Jakarta, not the short Tokyo-Seoul flight. This was jumbo jet diplomacy played with a certain mess-with-their-minds glee.

The second leg of the Asia trek paid tribute to Jakarta’s own view of ASEAN hierarchy — Indonesia sees itself as the first among Southeast Asian equals. It also gave the ASEAN’s a big stroke, something never really achieved by Colin Powell or Condoleezza Rice.

Powell’s comment in his 2001 confirmation hearings that the US would look to Australia for the lead on Indonesia was probably a negative moment for all three countries. The ASEANs know they will usually rank below Northeast Asia in US priorities. So for ASEAN, the only thing worse than being bullied by Washington is to  be ignored by Washington.

Indonesia’s foreign minister, Hassan Wirayuda, hailed the Clinton visit as representing a new US focus on the Asia Pacific: “During the Bush administration — presumably because of its preoccupation with the Middle East — the US had not engaged Asia as Asian countries would have wished. We welcome the new engagement.”

The final leg of the trip proved that symbolic jetting about can’t alter the money realities. In Beijing, the new Secretary of State was doing her bit for the US Treasury, urging China to keep buying the bonds. China is America’s largest creditor, holding US$696 billion of US Treasury securities. Japan comes second, holding $573 billion.

The changing order is noted by a former US Deputy Treasury Secretary, Roger Altman, with his comment that “the US-Chinese relationship is becoming the United States’ most important bilateral relationship.” This is a reversal of the line beloved by a generation of US ambassadors to Tokyo, that the bilateral relationship with Japan was the most important.

Australia will be as happy as the rest of the region if the visit-Asia-first message is followed up some consistent attention from the new administration. Although not part of the trek, Canberra got its tick in the Secretary of State’s earlier Asia Society speech. Australia was linked with China as one of those responding vigorously to the financial crisis. The G20 also got generous words. And specifically, there was a thank you to Australia, “for its leadership and friendship over decades. While I’m not able to visit Australia on this trip, we know that Australia is one of our most trusted allies in the world.”

One attribute of the modern politician is the ability to give good phone. And mid-way through the trek, Hillary mentioned to the travelling press on the plane how she’d found time for a quick chat with Kevin Rudd: “I just [got] off the phone with Prime Minister Rudd in Australia and he is one of many voices saying we’ve really got to come together around this G-20 Summit and make sure we’ve got a positive program.”

The beauty of dealing with fellow gweilos is that sometimes just a phone call will suffice.

The article first appeared on the Lowy Institute’s blog, www.lowyinterperter.org.

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