Asia Cautiously Welcomes Obama’s Re-election

President Barack Obama’s re-election has been hailed by many political experts in Asia, but they warn against expecting too much from the president during his new term.

Political experts in Asia say Asian countries should not expect too much from US President Barack Obama’s re-election. Many of them believe his second term in office will not be much different from his first one. Despite that, many in Asia find Obama more “Asia friendly” than the opposition’s Mitt Romney.

Experts also expect Washington’s relations with Asia to remain “complex” in the next four years, and that both President Obama and Asian leaders have a lot of unfinished work to do.

US-China relations

Professor Liu Xuecheng of the China Institute of International Studies told Deutsche Welle (DW) that people in China had expected Obama to win and that his re-election was beneficial for both countries.

“Chinese leaders have known Barack Obama for four years now. We know his foreign policy, we know his China policy, and we know his style.”

Now that Obama is still in office, “it is easier for both China and the US to continue working.” Liu told DW that while many problems in Sino-US relations persisted, bilateral relations were now likely to remain stable. Had Romney been elected, on the other hand, the US and China would have needed a “new start.”

Good for Asian democracies

In Indonesia, President Obama enjoys massive popularity. As a child, Obama spent a few years in the Indonesian capital Jakarta. During his first term as president, Obama placed a lot of importance on relations with the Southeast Asian Muslim-majority country. Indonesian experts hope that this “privileged status” will remain constant during Obama’s second term too.

Philips J. Vermonte, a foreign policy expert for the think tank Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Jakarta, told DW that before Obama, the US had only looked at Indonesia in the context of the “war on terror.” After he became president in 2009, it started looking at Indonesia as a partner in other spheres as well.

“The Americans now recognize Indonesia as a leader in Southeast Asia,” he stated, adding that the democratic Indonesia shared more similar values with the US than many other Southeast Asian nations.

In Myanmar, also known as Burma, pro-democracy activists and parties have also welcomed Obama’s re-election. Burmese experts say Obama’s victory will encourage more political reform in Myanmar.

Complicated relations

Barack Obama may be popular in Southeast Asia but his relations with South Asian Muslim countries have, on the other hand, been complicated. In 2009, most Muslim countries welcomed the election of Barack Obama as the first African American US president. In some Muslim-majority countries, including Afghanistan and Pakistan, Obama was looked at as a charismatic statesman who people thought would change the “war on terror” discourse. In Pakistan, most people hoped that the Obama administration would be different from George W. Bush’s, who many Pakistanis believed, was not Muslim-friendly.

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But as President Obama has now won a re-election and a second term in the White House, his popularity in Afghanistan and Pakistan is believed to be lower than ever.

Farooq Sulehria, a London-based journalist and activist, told DW US-Pakistani ties would remain “difficult” during Obama’s second term. “I don’t see any major shift in Pakistani-US relations, mainly because Pakistan is not ready to change its Afghanistan policy, which is in conflict with Obama’s objectives in the region.”

Sulehria added that 2014, when the NATO combat troops leave Afghanistan, could be a very crucial year in determining future relations between the US and Pakistan. “Pakistan wants a complete withdrawal of troops but I think the 2014 pullout is going to be somewhat similar to what we saw earlier in Iraq. That will not give Pakistan the opportunity to interfere in Afghanistan. This will complicate US-Pakistani ties further.”

Nonetheless, experts, such as Shahram Azhar, a Pakistani economist and activist based in Amherst, USA, say that Obama’s re-election is “a blessing for the democratic set-up in Pakistan.”

The Obama administration, according to Sulehria, would continue to support Pakistan’s civilian government over the powerful generals.

Afghan withdrawal

Experts say Obama’s re-election is probably of more significance for Afghanistan than for any other Asian country. International NATO-led forces are in the process of winding up their mission in the war-torn country and most of them will withdraw by June 2014.

Afghan legislators have cautiously welcomed the news of Obama’s victory.

Shahgul Rezaie, a member of the Afghan parliament, told DW that many terrorist networks and training centers had been destroyed during Obama’s first tenure. Alluding to Pakistan, Rezaie said the US had also exerted pressure on countries that support armed groups in Afghanistan. He said he hoped the promises made by the international community with regards to Afghanistan would be kept in the coming years.

Yunus Qanuni, former chairman of the Afghan parliament, praised Obama for his “charismatic leadership” and told DW that he “shined both domestically and internationally” as US president. “Although there are weaknesses in Obama’s Afghanistan policies, I hope that he will do a better job this time and be successful.”

This article was first published in Deutsche Welle.

Shamil Shams works for radio Deutsche Welle’s Urdu and Asian English services in Bonn, Germany. He earned a MSc from London School of Economics (LSE) in Media and Communications (2010), and an MA in English Literature from Karachi University (2000). He has worked for Pakistan’s leading English newspaper The News, and has contributed articles for Dawn, Newsline and other Pakistani magazines and newspapers. Originally from Karachi, Shamil has worked with various non-government development organizations in Islamabad including the policy research think-tank, Sustainable Development Policy Institute (SDPI).