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Is Obama the first Asian President of the USA?

Article by Murad Qureshi AM

January 18, 2013

Some what overlooked when analysing the results of the 2012 US presidential elections, was the extent to which Asian Americans backed Obama. The figure was up to 73 per cent; surpassing the Latino and female vote. Romney’s Chinese bashing was ill judged, sitting uncomfortably with Asian Americans. Attacking China as an economic cheat served only to raise fears amongst Asian Americans thereby alienating this group of voters.

Asian Americans make up 3.4 per cent of the national electorate, and it is estimated by some that by 2050, this figure will rise to 10 per cent. Although in states like California, it could be at least 20 per cent from the present 11 per cent. Therefore the Asian American voted is growing and its potential should not be underestimated.

Obama’s appeal to the Asian American is mirrored by a wider global appeal, illustrated well by Pew Research and the fact that much of the world cheered the November re-election of US President Obama. This support was not necessarily an endorsement of US foreign policy. In particular there is still widespread opposition to US drone strikes as part of his anti-terrorism policy; his failure to meet expectations that he would tackle climate change; and crucially his failure to position the US as a more even-handed broker between Israel and Palestine. Yet, his popularity in Asia, especially South East Asia is undented. His relationship with South Asian countries is, however more complex. In Indonesia he enjoys massive popularity; this is not surprising considering that Obama has placed a lot of importance on relations with this Muslim majority country. In 2009, in other Muslim majority countries including Afghanistan and Pakistan, people hoped he would be different from the Bush administration. However, after his re-election and second term in the White House, his popularity in these countries has dipped and has never been lower. As for relations with China, this is likely to evolve into a working but competitive one, particularly in the East of Asia, as illustrated by his trip to Myanmar otherwise known as Burma.

So what should we make of his recent trip to Burma? Well it was part of a three leg tour which also took in Thailand and Cambodia for an ASEAN conference in the middle of last November. This made him the first US President to visit Burma and meet their President Thein Sein and Aung San Suu Kyi, leader of the pro-democracy party. The White House itself called it the “pivot” towards Asia, as their strategic focus becomes the fast-growing Asian countries, away from war and terrorism in the Middle East and Afghanistan. Clearly this trip reflects a watershed in policy and focus following the importance the US has placed on normalising relations with Burma. For the US, this represents an opportunity to have a greater stake in the region, partly to counter the influence of China.

Interestingly Robert Kaplan, academic and journalist in his book Monsoon about Burma,
observes the following;

“In short, Burma provides a code for understanding the world to come. It is a prize to be fought over, as China & India are doing so right now. Recognising the importance of what Burma and its neighbours represent at a time of new energy pathways, unstable fuel prices, and seaboard natural disasters………….For the US, Indian Ocean states like Burma are now, or should be, central to their calculations. ”

Importantly, he wrote this well before Obama’s re-election last November, so clearly some one is listening in the state department.

Further, Kaplan, based on his knowledge of the state department, argues that the appointment of special envoys for Israel-Palestine; Afghanistan-Pakistan & North Korea, will free up the Secretary of State to concentrate on the Indian Ocean and Asia-Pacific regions. Structurally at least, the State department is now better organised then it’s been for some time to respond to a rising India and China. Indeed John Kerry, the newly appointed Secretary of State should consider himself fortunate to be taking over at such a time of freed up resources within the state department.

So, Asians both in the US and aboard are set to have even more dealings with Obama in his second term. He is naturally more in tune with the region having lived in Indonesia in his formative years and by having an Asian half-sister. This backdrop inevitably acts to make him culturally more approachable and appealing to the Asian electorate. Arguably, the future of American power lies in the East; this notion is strengthened by the re-election of President Obama, who has already made a clear play for Asia. Based on recent policy and the apparent lean towards Asia, it looks as though Obama himself would have little trouble being perceived as the first Asian President of the USA.

Murad Qureshi is a Labour member of the London Assembly

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