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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Sunday, March 21, 2010

Obama snub sent wrong message

 •  State to honor 28 troops who paid ultimate price

By Richard Halloran

President Obama has made a serious mistake in postponing twice his state visit to Indonesia, with the president, his political advisers and the pundits of Washington seemingly unaware of the far-reaching effects of the snub to Indonesian national pride.

Spokesmen for President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono sought to downplay the rebuff, saying their president looked forward to leisurely conversations with Obama in Jakarta in June. The Indonesian press took the slight calmly although the Jakarta Post, a leading English-language newspaper, said Obama's trip had been postponed "after a political debacle at home over health reform forced him to remain in Washington."

Obama also postponed a visit to Australia, a loyal American ally, but press reports from Canberra suggested that Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, who operates in a political world much like that in Washington, understood the pressures on Obama to continue his struggle over health care.

The immediate consequences appeared to include a setback in Obama's effort to communicate with Muslims, Indonesia being the world's most populous Islamic nation. Indonesia is arguably the most influential member of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, or ASEAN, and the postponement has probably damaged the U.S. in its dealings with that organization.

Indonesia's strategic location alongside the Straits of Malacca and the South China Sea, through which pass more ships than through the Panama and Suez Canals combined, has made Jakarta the object of quiet but assiduous U.S. efforts to encourage operations against pirates and terrorists. Postponing the state visit at the last minute may well have undercut those efforts.

But the deeper and more subtle consequence is the message sent not only to Indonesia but to all Asian nations that have spent the past 50 years shucking the effects of 501 years of Western colonial domination. The message of the abrupt, ill-mannered Obama postponement, in its rawest form, says to Asians: "You don't matter as much as we do."

The legacy of that anti-colonial drive has been the emergence of a robust nationalism that seeks, more than anything else, to be respected by Asia's former colonial masters. Kishore Mahbubani, a Singaporean diplomat and scholar, wrote some years ago that Europeans and Americans have a hard time understanding this because "their minds have never been wrapped in the cellophane of colonialism."

The colonial period in Asia started in 1498 when the Portuguese explorer Vasco da Gama landed on the coast of India and ended in 1999 when the Portuguese colony of Macao reverted to China. In between, Britain colonized much of South Asia while the French came to rule Indochina and the Netherlands controlled what was called the Dutch East Indies, now Indonesia, for 350 years.

The U.S., in the Philippines, and Japan, in Taiwan and Korea, were latecomers to the colonial game in the 19th century. All of the colonial nations sought a slice of what was known as the Chinese melon so that on the eve of World War II in 1941, foreign flags flew over every country in Asia except three: Japan, Thailand and Nepal.

Japan broke the back of Western colonialism in Asia during World War II by sweeping though Southeast Asia to the gates of India but was defeated in its attempt to impose its own Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere. After the war ended in 1945, one Asian nation after another became independent, some peaceably, others violently. The Vietnam War was, in some ways, the last of the anti-colonial wars.

Today it is this Rising East, with its nationalism and economic, political and military power that Americans ignore or refuse to acknowledge at their peril. Obama's sudden decision to put off his journey was not the act of a statesman intent on coping with a surging Asia.