He has met an altogether new challenge. President Obama arrived in Asia over the weekend with an awkward encounter and speech.

Calling himself the first “president of the Pacific”, in
front of over 1,500 Japanese staff in Tokyo, he stressed that there is
no “decline” of the American presence in the continent. Instead,
Washington wants to work to strengthen alliances with Japan and South
Korea and build new relationships with China and Indonesia, confirming
the desire to participate in the free market of the “Trans-Pacific”
area, which for now includes Chile, New Zealand, Singapore and Brunei
and could muster up to 21 states in the region. Speaking of China,
Obama said that “the growth of a strong and prosperous China can be a
source of strength for the community of nations” and that “in a
connected world … nations need not fear the success of the other”.

The U.S. president also said that his country “is not afraid to
speak out loud on the fundamental values that we cherish.” But so as
not to irritate Beijing, he avoided mentioning any specific concerns
about human rights and democracy.

Isn’t that contradictory?

His words and gestures are being carefully watched. ‘The bow’ before the emperor of Japan was particularly noticed. According to some sources, either way you look at it…..he blew it.

Then he got to China. Here’s how the New York Times handicapped that visit.

It is a long way from the days when President George W.
Bush hectored China about currency manipulation, or when President Bill
Clinton exhorted the Chinese to improve human rights.

Mr. Obama has struck a mollifying note with China. He pointedly
singled out the emerging dynamic at play between the United States and
China during a wide-ranging speech in Tokyo on Saturday that was meant
to outline a new American relationship with Asia.

He and his administration have gone to great lengths to stike that mollifying tone.

White House officials have been working for months to
make sure that Mr. Obama’s three-day visit to Shanghai and Beijing
conveys a conciliatory image. For instance, in June, the White House
told the Dalai Lama that while Mr. Obama would meet him at some point,
he would not do so in October, when the Tibetan spiritual leader
visited Washington, because it was too close to Mr. Obama’s visit to
China.

Even though…

Every president since George H. W. Bush in 1991 has met the Dalai Lama when he visited Washington…

They’re bending over backwards to ameloriate their approach to the Chinese government. Like…

while he was campaigning for the presidency, Mr. Obama
several times accused China of manipulating its currency, an allegation
that the current Treasury secretary, Timothy F. Geithner, repeated
during his confirmation hearings. But in April, the Treasury Department
retreated from that criticism, issuing a report that said China was not
manipulating its currency to increase its exports. 

And now, the new mollifying tone.

One hint of the Obama administration’s new approach came
in a speech this fall by James B. Steinberg, the deputy secretary of
state, who has deep roots in China policy. He argued that China needed
to adopt a policy of “strategic reassurance” to the rest of the world,
a phrase that appeared intended to be the successor to the framework of
the Bush era, when China was urged to embrace a role as a “responsible
stakeholder.”

“Strategic reassurance rests on a core, if tacit, bargain,” Mr.
Steinberg said. “Just as we and our allies must make clear that we are
prepared to welcome China’s ‘arrival,’ ” he argued, the Chinese “must
reassure the rest of the world that its development and growing global
role will not come at the expense of security and well-being of others.”

So, how’s this new tone working out for us?

The Chinese reaction has been mixed, at best. The
official China Daily newspaper ran a column just before Mr. Obama’s
arrival suggesting that the United States needed to provide some
assurance of its own — to “respect China’s sovereignty and territorial
integrity,” code words for entirely backing away from the issues of how
China deals with Taiwan and Tibet.

In the United States, the phrase “strategic reassurance” has been
attacked by conservative commentators, who argue that any reassurance
that the United States provides to China would be an acknowledgment of
a decline in American power.

Obama is not a celebrity there. Much of the world may like him
better than George W. Bush, said Shi Yinhong, a professor and an expert
on United States-China relations at People’s University in Beijing

“But in China, Obama’s popularity is less than in
Europe, than Japan or Southeast Asia.” In China, he said, “there is no
worship of Obama.”

For instance, during the Bush and Clinton years, China
might release a few political dissidents on the eve of a visit by the
president as a good-will gesture. This time, American officials say,
they do not expect any similar gestures…

There is a reason for that. A good-will gesture is offered in
respect for moral authority. It is withdrawn when that authority is
weakened, or the reasons to respect it are diminished, or both.

Sheila Liaugminas

Sheila Liaugminas is an Emmy award-winning Chicago-based journalist in print and broadcast media. Her writing and broadcasting covers matters of faith, culture, politics and the media....