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Published: Tuesday, 11/24/2009

Diplomatic dividend

TO READ the headlines, there is no reason to believe President Obama achieved a lot during his trip to East Asia, with stops in Japan, Singapore, China, and South Korea.

At the same time, it was a very essential getting-to-know-you tour for the President, featuring meetings with critical U.S. interlocutors in their home capitals in a part of the world that is of great importance to the United States.

One critical stop was in Japan, which has a new government headed by a new prime minister, Yukio Hatoyama. That government has replaced a longtime U.S. political partner and is taking a fresh look at aspects of its political, military, and economic relationship with America. Mr. Obama's visit softened any anti-American cast that the changes under consideration might have taken.

China was probably the most important stop for Mr. Obama. It appeared that he let the Chinese leadership blunt, partly through the format, some of the criticism that he might have handed out there. He didn't say much, for example, about China's abysmal human rights record, its intolerance of religious and regional opposition in the Tibetan and Uighur regions, its fiddling with the currency exchange rate, or even its heavy-handed roundup of dissidents.

Mr. Obama's reticence could be attributed to the fact that China holds billions of dollars in U.S. Treasury bonds and will need to continue doing that if our government is to stay afloat financially.

Or, to put forward a more generous analysis, perhaps Mr. Obama was pursuing a different kind of diplomacy from the all-hat-no-cattle approach of President George W. Bush - making nice in public while driving home his harder points in private. If that was the case, visible results of his trip could appear down the line, quietly.

One fruitful area would be closer coordination, if not agreement, with the Chinese on climate-change strategy. That issue is of great importance not only to the United States and China, but also to the Europeans and other Asians. Prospects for the December Copenhagen summit on climate change don't look promising at this point. At the same time, the agreement announced by Mr. Obama and Chinese President Hu Jintao on a series of initiatives bodes well for gradual, general progress.

In general, Mr. Obama's time was well spent on his Asian tour. It is possible that the real dividends will be paid quietly, later, the results of a more private, subtle diplomacy.



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