WASHINGTON/JAKARTA (Reuters) - After being feted in Europe, mobbed in Africa and even cheered in the Middle East, Barack Obama will test the limits of his global starpower next week in his debut presidential tour of Asia.
Most signs are that even as the young American president has lost some of his lustre at home, he remains popular overseas and can expect a warm reception on a 10-day trip to Japan, Singapore, China and South Korea.
But “Obamamania”, Asian-style, is likely to be more muted, given that simply not being George W. Bush will be less of an asset than it has been for him elsewhere.
On top of that, Obama will have a hard time translating his personal stature into tangible gains during a visit where the main issues -- the North Korean nuclear standoff, trade with China, the U.S. troop presence in Japan and the struggle for a climate change deal -- do not present any easy wins.
“Obama’s celebrity status will be a plus for him, but Asians are going to be more pragmatic in dealing with him,” said James Mann, an Asia expert at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies in Washington.
Since taking office in January, Obama has been especially popular in Europe where many greeted him as the antidote to eight years of Bush, whom they deeply resented for the 2003 U.S.-led invasion of Iraq and for what they derided as “cowboy diplomacy” toward the world.
Obama was welcomed by adoring crowds in his early trips to the other side of the Atlantic, with only Russia giving him a cooler reception reflective of testy post-Cold War relations between Washington and Moscow.
Europe’s love affair with Obama, who has promised a new era of diplomatic engagement, was widely seen as a major factor in Obama being awarded the Nobel Peace Prize last month despite having scored few significant achievements on the world stage.
ASIANS MORE WARY
While many Asians have been captivated by Obama’s personal narrative as the first U.S. black president, he has never been as popular there as in Europe. In fact, polls taken before last year’s presidential election showed his Republican rival John McCain favoured in some Asian countries.
And the fact is Bush was never as unpopular in Asia, where trade and economic interests always trumped issues like the Iraq war, as he was in Europe.
“There’s less of a desire in Asia that Obama be a transformational figure who breaks with the Bush era,” Mann said. “Many actually want to see some kind of continuity.”
As Obama sets the tone for his administration’s relations with Asia’s economic powers, he may face his greatest challenge with the Chinese, who seem the most wary of his policies.
Though many Chinese admire his personal appeal, that does not outweigh general concern about his administration’s intentions, especially given its recent decision to impose punitive duties on tyre imports from China.
“Whoever becomes president of the United States won’t be very friendly to China. After all, China is a competitive rival of the United States,” said Wang Shuyang, 47, a high-tech company executive from Shanghai.
Some even feel China was on a more comfortable footing with Bush. “We knew where we stood,” said Shi Yinhong, professor of international security at Renmin University in Beijing.
Like other export-driven Asian countries, the Chinese worry a Democratic administration will be more vulnerable to protectionist pressures at home, a fear that persists despite Obama’s insistence on the importance of free trade.
Some human rights activists fear Obama will put human rights in China on the back burner to curry favour with its communist government, the biggest holder of U.S. treasuries and a powerbroker on North Korea. The White House denies this.
FIRST STOP: JAPAN
Japan, Obama’s first stop next Thursday before attending an Asia-Pacific summit in Singapore, will pose another challenge as he tries to cement ties with new Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama, who wants to steer a more independent diplomatic course from its U.S. ally.
Bilateral issues such as U.S. military bases on Japanese soil remain sensitive and could cloud Obama’s visit. But in general, Obama’s vision of a nuclear-free world should give him a boost among Japanese with a pacifist tilt.
North Korea’s nuclear defiance will likely dominate Obama’s stop in Seoul. Many South Koreans greeted Obama’s election a year ago as a welcome change after Bush, who was seen as too rigid in dealing with the problem.
Despite that, Obama has little to show for his diplomatic outreach to Pyongyang. He has also made little more progress than Bush did in getting a long-stalled U.S.-South Korea free trade deal through the U.S. Congress.
Although Indonesia won’t be on Obama’s itinerary this time, his popularity runs high in the world’s most populous Muslim country, where he is embraced almost as a native son because he lived and went to school in the capital Jakarta as a child.
“People like him because he seems to be one of us,” said political commentator Wimar Witoelar.
Indonesians are eagerly awaiting a chance to celebrate Obama’s links to their country. The White House says he has agreed to visit there next year.
For a map detailing Obama’s itinerary, click:
Additional reporting by Sunanda Creagh in JAKARTA, Yoko Kubota in TOKYO, Jack Kim in SEOUL, Liu Zhen and Chris Buckley in BEIJING, Editing by Dean Yates
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