Obama in Southeast Asia: Symbolism or Substance?


Nov. 19, 2012, 5:45 p.m. Published in Magazine Issue: Vol. : 06 No.-10 Nov. 09-2012 (Kartik 24, 2069)

President Obama travels to Thailand, Myanmar, and Cambodia this week in his first foreign tour since winning the election. In a Q&A, Vikram Nehru previews the trip and analyzes U.S. influence in the region.


What will likely come out of Obama’s trip to Thailand?


On his first country stop, Obama has the opportunity to reinforce military ties with Thailand and boost Washington’s initiative to liberalize trade and investment in the region.


The visit comes on the heels of Secretary Panetta’s meetings in Bangkok to reaffirm the U.S.-Thai defense partnership and voice support for Thailand’s role in regional security efforts. U.S. strategists believe Thailand is an important element of a mosaic of Asian countries critical to America’s long-term security objectives.


A broad swathe of countries with broadly similar strategic interests, made up of Japan, South Korea, the Philippines, Indonesia, Vietnam, Thailand, Myanmar, and India, can act as a counterweight to a rising China. These frontline states would be the ones that will have to deal directly with any increase in Chinese assertiveness in the region.


The other important element of the visit is to applaud Thailand’s wish to join the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the free trade initiative in the Asia-Pacific championed by Obama. This is just the beginning of Thailand’s involvement, and it will take some time for the country to officially join negotiations.


But Thai interest should significantly boost the Trans-Pacific Partnership and may even encourage other countries to sign up.


Why is Obama traveling to Myanmar?


This will be the first visit by a sitting U.S. president to Myanmar, and it points to the country’s positive political and economic reforms. Encouragingly, the Myanmar authorities even announced a further release of prisoners as a goodwill gesture in advance of Obama’s arrival (although there are doubts as to whether they are political prisoners or not).


Obama will meet with both President Thein Sein and Aung San Suu Kyi and encourage their reform efforts. The United States has provided unstinting support for Myanmar’s human rights icon Aung San Suu Kyi, but lately Washington is beginning to realize that Thein Sein, originally a product of the military regime, is emerging as a formidable political force with strong reformist instincts.


The transition from military to civilian rule, and the political and economic reforms that followed, have surprised most foreign observers. Myanmar has conducted fair by-elections, followed the rule of law in dealings between the president and parliament, signed ceasefire agreements with ten of eleven ethnic states, expanded freedom of assembly and the press, and allowed collective bargaining by workers’ unions.


And perhaps most remarkable of all, Thein Sein, Aung San Suu Kyi, and Thura Shwe Mann, the speaker of the lower house of parliament—the so-called triumvirate at the helm of the country’s affairs—are working constructively together by all accounts.


There is certainly recognition in Washington that Thein Sein in particular needs support and encouragement to continue with the reform process. If reforms lead to concrete results, it will only strengthen the transition. Obama’s presence and words of encouragement will add impetus.


Still, Obama has to walk a very fine line. He needs to support the progress but still emphasize that Myanmar faces a long road ahead. Myanmar must improve the functioning of its democracy, better respect human rights, advance relations with Myanmar’s ethnic minorities, and liberalize the economy. Human rights activists are arguing that this trip is premature and sends the wrong signals. Obama needs to be cognizant of this and strike the right balance between acclaiming progress while urging Myanmar to stay the course.


Another potential risk hanging over Obama’s trip is a resurgence in violence—related or unrelated to Obama’s trip—in Rakhine State between the Rohingyas (a Muslim ethnic group that is not recognized by the government as citizens) and ethnic Buddhists. Conflict would certainly serve as a reminder of the difficult challenges facing Myanmar and complicate what should otherwise be a positive visit.


What issues will be covered during the East Asia Summit? Will any progress be made in calming tensions in the South and East China Seas?


This is the second year in a row that the U.S. president will attend the East Asia Summit—which is telling about how high Asia ranks in terms of U.S. priorities. And this symbolism is important.


Maritime security will be a major topic during the East Asia Summit. But it is unlikely for concrete solutions to emerge on the multiple competing territorial claims in the South China Sea. Most likely, the countries around the table will restate oft-repeated positions.


Notwithstanding efforts among ASEAN’s leaders prior to the summit, the proposed code of conduct intended to avert clashes over disputed claims is not expected to be ready for discussion with China. But if Obama can fashion genuine agreement to refrain from combative rhetoric and avoid provocative acts as a way to lower temperatures and pave the way for future dialogue, it would be a significant victory for the summit and for common sense.


Trade will also be a major issue. Before Obama arrives in Cambodia, ASEAN will likely announce the launch of the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership, which will include the ten Southeast Asian members of ASEAN along with Australia, China, India, Japan, New Zealand, and South Korea.


The United States is not involved in the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership. While Washington will no doubt emphasize the benefits of the Trans-Pacific Partnership as an alternative and superior vehicle for integrating the region, it should welcome any and all efforts that strengthen Asia. Hopefully, over time, the two parallel trade initiatives will develop, mature, and ultimately coalesce, perhaps even forming the core of a future global multilateral trade agenda.


All in all, there will probably not be too much headway made at the summit, but the U.S. presence signals that Southeast Asian countries have a constructive and powerful partner standing with them in their efforts to deal with Asia’s many challenges and seize its many opportunities.


What should Washington’s priorities be in Southeast Asia?


U.S. policy is largely viewed in Southeast Asia as driven by security concerns. While the other areas—from economics to governance—are playing catch up, progress is uneven at best.


Obama needs to develop an overarching strategic framework that allows for a comprehensive partnership with Southeast Asian countries. This will build on common strategic interests and shared values.


Creating such a relationship on a regional level is preferable, but initially, most of the work will need to be done on a country-by-country basis. The comprehensive partnership with Indonesia is a great model for other countries.


Over time, commonality in the bilateral deals with Southeast Asian countries will emerge and should lead to a broader regional relationship that covers the entire breadth of issues—from security to governance to economics.




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