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What about Asia, Mr President?

By Thom Woodroofe - posted Thursday, 7 January 2010

President Obama’s trip to Copenhagen last month was his fifth trip to Europe in 2009. The sad reality is that he only visited Asia once during the year.

President Obama’s trip to Asia in November for APEC and bilateral meetings with Japan, China and South Korea was his most important of the year. Much more important than sprucing a hometown Olympic bid in Denmark or accepting the Nobel Peace Prize in Oslo with one hand and saluting off more troops into harm’s way with the other.

While some of his European adventures have taken him to important gatherings of the G20 and NATO, declaring war on nuclear arms along the way, it is Asia - not Europe - that should be centre of the world’s attention heading into the New Year.


Having spent so much time in the United States over the last two years, it strikes me how polarising East and West Coast foreign policy thinking is when it comes to Asia. More importantly, just how much the Obama Administration has become irrationally dominated by outdated East Coast foreign policy thinking.

The East Coast continues to be guided by an “Atlantic-centric” approach to foreign policy forged in the aftermath of World War II. It is an approach that sees Washington, London, Moscow, Paris and Berlin as the great capitals of the world and the time zones that adorn the walls of the White House Situation Room.

But the goalposts have shifted eastwards.

Indeed, by 2020 the world’s four largest cities - Seoul, Mumbai, Jakarta and Karachi - will all be in Asia. The region already houses the two most populous countries, China and India, and the biggest Islamic state in Indonesia.

Economically, Asia has become the engine room of world’s economy pumping out half of global GDP and nurturing growing markets which could help drive the US and Europe out of its economic downturn. Asia also has three of the five largest militaries in the world and will shortly account for a quarter of all global military spending. Even the nuclear and security threats posed by rogue states like North Korea or from an escalation between India and Pakistan far outweigh anything happening in Europe.

By comparison, Europe has some economic stresses following the global economic crisis, but otherwise it settled into a period of stability that was hoped for following the collapse of the Berlin Wall 20 years ago.


Indeed, when Donald Rumsfeld famously remarked in 2003 that France and Germany represented “Old Europe”, he was a bit off the mark: Europe in its entirety is getting a bit old! The recent shift of “executive” global decision making from the G8 to the G20 demonstrates that the old powers of the Atlantic are giving way to an Asia that has risen, and is now maturing, on the international stage.

Current conflicts bear out the shift in priorities that will need to take place.

The priority of NATO remains the war in Afghanistan, not the challenges associated with an ascendant and potentially militaristic China. Last month’s Copenhagen climate change negotiations were run and driven by Europe’s low carbon agenda and ultimately did not succeed because of a reluctant India and China.

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About the Author

Thom Woodroofe, 21, is a foreign affairs analyst combining journalism, research, teaching and community work to advance an understanding of Australia's place in the world.

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