It’s all about faceBANGKOK - The contrasts could not be starker. As U.S. President Barack Obama scaled back and then cancelled a long-planned trip to Asia, Chinese President Xi Jinping begins his first trip to Southeast Asia since taking office in March and, with great fanfare, becomes the first foreign leader to address Indonesia’s Parliament.
Should Obama have made it to Bali to participate in the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit and then to Brunei for the East Asia Summit this week, he would have no doubt been likewise welcomed with the appropriate respect and ceremony that Asian hospitality and diplomatic protocol would dictate for any American head of state.
That for Obama would have certainly been a welcome change from the struggles facing him in Washington.
Yet, after a series of volte-faces by Obama these past weeks and his failure to negotiate a budget deal with the U.S. Congress, the view from Asia of recent American leadership is not necessarily a positive one. That does not bode well for the so-called pivot, or rebalance in U.S. policy, toward Asia.
This is, after all, a region of the world where there remains tremendous respect for not just thoughtful but also strong and decisive leaders. The Singapore senior statesman Lee Kuan Yew - who as prime minister took his nation from third world to first world in a few decades and who just celebrated his 90th birthday - is a leading example.
But with Obama’s on-again, off-again approach to Syria dominating past headlines, his ongoing struggles with a divided U.S. Congress and his now cancelled trip, one can well understand some Asian leaders’ quiet concerns about America’s attention span and focus, particularly in the face of China’s rise. Obama already canceled planned stops in Malaysia and the Philippines before calling off his entire return visit to Asia this week.
Ironically, as foreign business people continue to take steps to understand China’s shifting landscape and the implications of recent leadership changes in what is now the world’s second-largest economy, Obama has provided an unfortunate illustration about what is arguably- along with money and power - one of the three great motivators in modern China. That is the concept of “face.”
In Chinese, as in English, the definition of face includes that space between a person’s forehead and chin. But as Scott D. Seligman, a historian, former Fortune 500 business executive and author of “Chinese Business Etiquette,” among other insightful China-focused books, explains, for Chinese and many others in Asia, face also describes a somewhat intangible concept tied to notions of personal dignity and respect. In Chinese, it’s called “mianzi,” and in Korean, it’s “chae myun,”
Losing face in Asia can have a lot more consequences than a bit of momentary embarrassment. People think of you differently. Credibility erodes. Power, prestige, influence and even expectations of your abilities can decline.
Just more than a year ago, Obama drew his red line in the sand. If Syrian President Bashar al-Assad were to cross that line by using chemical weapons against his own people, a strong, significant U.S. response would follow.
In his own words: “We have been very clear to the Assad regime, but also to other players on the ground, that a red line for us is we start seeing a whole bunch of chemical weapons moving around or being utilized,” Obama said. “That would change my calculus.”
So what happened? Chemical weapons were used, and Obama’s bluff was called. A non-response would have been a huge loss of face to the U.S. president. But as the American public and numerous members of the U.S. Congress made clear, the president had failed to make a strong enough case for the United States to enter into another military action so soon after Libya, Iraq and Afghanistan.
And so, the president did an about-face on whether he needed to have Congress authorize what seemed to be a strike of ever-shrinking size. That was before he changed his mind again and welcomed a decision to delay a possible vote. All of this may well have been seen by Obama and his defenders as a face-saving way out of a dilemma of his own making, but the view from Asia was of a leader who was far from decisive.
Votes - meaningful or otherwise - may well still come about Syria in Congress and again at the United Nations, but Russia has already shrewdly stepped into the breach by taking advantage of a seemingly offhand comment by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry as the basis for a proposed agreement that would avert a U.S. military strike.
Make no mistake though. Russian President Vladimir Putin was not practicing the Chinese concept of “giving face” - described by Seligman as the practice of “enhancing someone else’s esteem through compliments, flattery or a show of respect.” Putin has helped keep Assad in power in the near term and reasserted Russian influence in the Middle East.
If the United States can be outmaneuvered by Russia when it comes to Syria, what about by an increasingly assertive China in Southeast and East Asia? As much of the region comes to terms with China’s economic and military growth, a United States that moves beyond budget impasses and issues of face, and complements defense and diplomacy with greater commercial, educational and cultural engagement would be welcome in Asia. A “soft power” pivot, if you will.
Why will a Chinese manager stick stubbornly to an announced policy, even when subsequent events prove it to have been irretrievably misguided, when a Western boss would have long since reversed himself? The answer, Seligman says, is the concept of face. And in the case of Obama and Syria, we may well have the worst of East and West - stubborn insistence by Obama that he does have a consistent policy when the world sees otherwise.
Seligman writes, “No one can say how much money has been wasted, how many people toppled from power or how many friendships have been destroyed” over the abstract concept of face. But as those of us who work in Asia know, face can also be deadly serious business.
Obama might yet again change his mind on Syria, congressional positions may evolve on budgets, and regime change might come once again to the Middle East. The flow of history toward greater economic and individual freedom may be slow and uneven, but it is inevitable, whether Myanmar today, or Syria or North Korea tomorrow. Budget crisis or not, there is no loss of face in holding fast to that belief.
*The author served as a U.S. ambassador to the Asian Development Bank under Presidents Barack Obama and George W. Bush, and is the managing director of advisory firm RiverPeak Group.
By Curtis S. Chin