I think this is it for a while, in three extensive sub-parts! Background here.
1) Today the Columbia Journalism Review published part 2 of its interview with Howard French; first part was here and was discussed here. It is long and convincing, but here is the heart of its criticism of the dominant "Obama was a wimp" coverage. French says:
"I am known for having had a pretty consistent focus on human rights in my work as a journalist [JF note: this is very true], so the comments that will follow should not in any way suggest that I believe in a de-emphasis in human rights with regard to China.... But the problem with the way the press has covered this is there's a kind of implicit premise [that...] is misleading, I think. Maybe disingenuous is even a better word, because it seems to suggest that if Obama had pulled a Khrushchev and banged his shoe on the table on these issues and really jumped up and down and made a lot of noise, then this would have achieved a markedly different result for the better. I don't think there's any evidence of that. It may have made certain people in this society feel better about themselves, but if the goal is changing behaviors in China or obtaining political or diplomatic results with China, I think the evidence is the contrary."
On atmospheric payoffs of the trip:
"Two of the press conferences, in Japan and South Korea, both began with the same elements. In Japan, Prime Minister Hatoyama got up and gushed that "my friend Barack calls me 'Yukio.'" Then the Korean press conference began with [president] Lee Myung-bak saying, 'We have become close friends.' That says something. Those are not just routine polite words. It meant that Obama is profoundly popular in those countries. Hatoyama's poll numbers are high but dropping, Lee Myung-bak has been embattled, though recovering. But both saw it as enormously important in terms of their own agenda to be identified with Barack Obama. In my mind, the personal popularity and respect for him is a strategic asset. And not one that gets you results in a day. If you have foreign leaders who see their own fate tied up with Obama, that becomes a chip you can draw on. If you need a last minute shift on climate change, they do not want to separate from Barack Obama. Everyone wants to be his best friend."
What about the view that Obama caved to the Chinese on human rights?
"Here are the things we tried to do. Number one, he made a robust statement in Shanghai. Number two, have that reach as many tens of millions of Chinese as possible. You can argue about the degree of success, but the message got out. They had a chance to see him in a setting no Chinese had seen before. And beyond that was to be explicit and direct in the private meetings about the importance of our values and the effect on our relations. And then we put in references in the press conference statement to Tibet and the Dalai Lama, and the importance of rule of law, freedom of expression, protection of the rights of minorities, which was an obvious reference to the Uighurs and Tibetans. We went straight to Tibet in the statement, saying that we consider it part of China and urge direct negotiations with the Dalai Lama."
[NB: This following paragraph is from me, JF, and not the official. Before the trip, Obama postponed a meeting with the Dalai Lama, and the DL said in public that was fine with him, since smooth US-Chinese relations at the start of an Administration were important. Obama said that the fact of a meeting was not in doubt, only the timing. I said then and still think that the test will come in the next three or four months If Obama meets the Dalai Lama during that period, he will have preserved the tradition of his predecessors in treating the D.L. as a substantial religious and cultural figure who has earned international respect. If he doesn't, then it will be time to talk about "caving."]
About non-China aspects of the trip:
[This is the official again] "We thought the Southeast Asian part went well. We showed up a day late because of the Fort Hood memorial ceremony. But Obama got to the dinner, which the leaders liked. And the funny-shirt part, which they also liked. [See below - a tradition at meetings of the Asian Pacific Economic Cooperation group, or APEC.] And the ASEAN meeting [Association of Southeast Asian Nations]. He announced he was going to Indonesia next year, which soothed some of the feelings from his not being able to go there on this trip. The Indonesians love him. Lee Hsien-Loong [prime minister of Singapore; son of Lee Kwan Yew] was very positive about US presence in the region. As for Burma, of course they were at the ASEAN 10 meeting. Kurt Campbell [assistant secretary of state] had just gone to their capital, the first executive-branch representative to go there since almost forever. He met with Aung San Suu Kyi, and we are seeing some preliminary results. There's a little bit of the ice breaking there. I wouldn't overstate it. Maybe we'll see some developments, but it will take time. And the other ASEANs feel they are getting attention that they haven't gotten before.
"With Japan, it's a new and untested government. It's the first time in power for their party, and they're finding their sea legs. Everyone understands that. We were not trying to knock them off their uncertain sea legs, particularly in public. Not make them lose face or back them into a corner. But at the same time, we wanted to provide a degree of clarity about the future of the bases there. We announced a working group about the bases, and 99 of the 100 press outlets in the room understood that this meant we were not changing the agreements. We're making some adjustments around the edges, we want to show sensitivity to local concerns about the environment and other issues. But we're definitely not throwing out the agreements. Unfortunately, one person got it wrong, and [the New York Times] portrayed it as a stunning "concession." It was the exact opposite.
As for Japanese prime minister Hatoyama's calls for a new "East Asian Community," which would explicitly leave the U.S. out:
"We were very clear privately and publicly that the U.S. is going to be in on the ground floor on consultations about new international institutions. The key countries in the region really don't want a line drawn in the middle of the Pacific. There's a general concern over any attitude that would leave us out. No one is going to speak openly about any concerns over China's rise. Everyone understands that it's better to have a prosperous China than the reverse. But a robust U.S. presence in the region is widely seen as the best counterweight in the long-term."About trade and financial imbalances between the US and China:
"Obama talked a great deal in public and in private about the need for the Chinese to increase demand. He made clear that we're simply not going back to the old model. [Old model = China makes, saves, and lends; US borrows and buys.] So we are moving down what will be a long path. [US coverage has implied that China is the dominant paymaster in the US-China relations, but:] Their positions on climate change and rebalancing the economy all reflect an awareness of internal fragility and a reluctance to do anything that would affect their export industries. The nervousness over the Shanghai town hall was also a reflection of internal fragility and the need to assert and demonstrate control."
"From inside our bubble, we thought we were doing what we should be doing. From inside the press's bubble, I think it came across fine except for China. I think some of them wanted us to be rude to the Chinese leadership. That seems to be the standard for effectiveness. Not only is it bad form in general to be rude, and ineffective in Asia, but the last person on the planet who would be rude is Barack Obama. That is part of the reason he got elected."
3) Bonus! Selections from a note from a reader with experience around the world.
"- No one should assume that because the Obama visit was only aired on limited TV outlets (I understand his town meeting was aired in Shanghai), that it will not be seen throughout the country. Download videos, live streaming videos, etc. will circulate over the next weeks and it will be widely seen.
"- Americans tend to view most relationships through the prism of win/lose. Asians (as you well know) tend to be more subtle. This is why Americans often have difficulty bargaining for goods in Asian markets. They want to 'win' the transaction. The transaction as seen by the Asian is to try to find a price where each party feels that they got something of value and feel that each party is responsible for protecting himself from being cheated. It's up to you not to be taken... I have suggested Richard Nisbett's "The Geography of Thought" which addresses differences in ways of thinking of things east and west.
"- From the Asian perspective bowing to the older Japanese leader is a sign of strength. One does that because the power is not questioned, not because it is. Will Americans ("just win baby", "Winning isn't everything, it's the only thing") ever understand this?...
This does it for the time being.