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    Southeast Asia
     Nov 19, 2009
OBAMA ON THE ASIAN HIGHWAY
A new courtship for Southeast Asia
By Brian McCartan

BANGKOK - As United States President Barack Obama's Asia tour wraps up this week, his takeaway message was clear: the US is back in the region. In Southeast Asia, that message is translating into renewed engagement which, while not aimed exclusively at containing China's growing influence, is certainly targeted at fostering greater competition for the loyalty of individual countries.

Obama's trip over the weekend made him the first American president to share a room with all 10 leaders of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). ASEAN is composed of Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, the

  

Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam.

Much has been made of Obama's childhood time in Indonesia and the perceived Asian orientation of his presidency. He declared himself as the US's first "Pacific president" during his tour. The US's new Asian focus, however, is also based on views in Washington policy circles that the region has been neglected, much to the US's detriment in maintaining its pre-eminent position in the region vis-a-vis China.

Chinese influence in the region has grown considerably since the 1997-98 financial crisis and extended in the wake of the just now lifting global economic crisis. The late 1990s saw China's policy shift away from a confrontational approach, which included material support for several communist insurgencies, a brief invasion of Vietnam and high tensions with several Southeast Asian claimants to potentially oil-rich areas in the South China Sea.

In its place, China began using what many analysts have dubbed as a "soft power" approach to regional diplomacy, combining improved diplomatic relations with heavy investment in economic and infrastructure development projects. The new strategy has seen China work most closely with the region's authoritarian regimes, most notably with Myanmar.

Beijing's soft-power efforts have included training for government officials, invitations to meetings and trade fairs and special scholarships to regional students to study in Chinese universities. Infrastructure projects such as roads and hydro-electric dams and prestige projects such as the main stadium for next month's 2009 Southeast Asia Games in Vientiane, Laos, and the recently completed Council of Ministers building in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, are big-ticket examples of the approach.

In addition, China is an increasingly important source of low-interest loans, grants, development projects, technical assistance and foreign investment. Beijing's "no strings attached" approach to foreign aid has made China an attractive partner for regional governments with questionable human-rights and democracy records. That's been in direct contrast to the demands for improvements in political freedoms and human rights and moves against corruption demanded by many Western governments, including the US, as conditions for its assistance.

Those demands, however, have increasingly fallen on deaf ears. Economically, China last year replaced the US as ASEAN's third-largest trading partner - a position the US comfortably held for decades. Since 1993, China's trade with the region has grown by almost 20 times to US$179 billion in 2008. Its share of total ASEAN commerce rose from 2% to 10.5% over the same period. In August, China and ASEAN finalized a free-trade pact that can only boost further ties.

In contrast, despite an almost tripling in two-way shipments to $201 billion, the US's share of ASEAN's total trade fell from 17% to 12% last year. China's inroads have been made at a time when US attention was largely diverted, especially towards Iraq and Afghanistan and more broadly on the "war on terror".

Arrogant response
United States clout in the region was first hit by its perceived arrogant and opportunistic response to the 1997-98 Asian financial crisis, where it espoused the superiority of Western management and professed that more open markets were the best solution to the crisis that crashed asset values and indebted businesses.

The perception was compounded by Washington's reluctance to attend regional meetings after the inclusion of Myanmar in ASEAN in 1997, out of fear that participation could send an overly conciliatory message to its military leaders.

Southeast Asian feelings of American neglect were also reinforced by the US's post-September 11, 2001 focus on counter-terrorism issues and less on regional trade and investment initiatives, though several free-trade agreements were initiated with various regional countries during the George W Bush presidency.

Former secretary of state Condoleezza Rice's decision to skip two out of four ASEAN summits during her tenure, and what was viewed as a whirlwind visit by Bush to Indonesia in November 2006, were viewed as deliberate snubs by many ASEAN members. With apparent waning US interest, and amid Beijing's trade, diplomatic and development overtures, China stole a march in the region.

Realization of China's growing clout gave rise to fears among some US officials that America's long-standing influence in the region could be eclipsed. Some change began under the Bush administration with the creation of a US ambassador for ASEAN Affairs. The Obama administration has carried forward those efforts, beginning with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's inaugural trip to the region in February when she visited the ASEAN secretariat in Jakarta, Indonesia.

That visit was followed by her attendance at the ASEAN Regional Forum in Phuket, Thailand, in July where she signed the ASEAN Treaty of Amity and Cooperation - an agreement China had signed in 2003. During that meeting, Clinton pointedly announced "the US is back in Southeast Asia".

Clinton's two visits to the region were a lead-up to the US-ASEAN Leaders Meeting on the sidelines of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum held in Singapore over the weekend. Although no major deals or political breakthroughs were expected from the meet, symbolically it provided a boost to American clout in the region and sent the message that the US intends to remain as a major political and economic presence in the region.

It also intended to send the message that the US intends to compete with China for regional influence. In his speech at Suntory Hall in Tokyo on November 14 before traveling to Singapore, Obama said, "In an interconnected world, power does not need to be a zero-sum game, and nations need not fear the success of another. Cultivating spheres of cooperation - not competing spheres of influence - will lead to progress in the Asia-Pacific."

He continued, "The United States does not seek to contain China, nor does a deeper relationship with China mean a weakening of our bilateral alliances."

Power equations
Analysts differ over China's ultimate intentions in the region. Some view Beijing as seeking to dominate the region, to the detriment of the US, with the aim of securing its contiguous southern provinces from outside influence. The Obama administration has now publicly taken the stance that US-China competition for influence in the region need not come at the other's expense.

While containment of China in the sense of forcing countries to pick sides and creating a confrontational Cold War-like atmosphere is not overtly Obama's policy, it does seem aimed at blunting the spread of Chinese power. One of the new arenas of that competition is military-run Myanmar, where China currently has comparative influence.

Under a doctrine of engaging both friends and foes, a new US policy was announced at the end of September that provided for diplomatic engagement with Myanmar's military regime. The policy offers an alternative to the strict sanctions-led policies of the Bill Clinton and Bush presidencies and removes a recurring impediment to US-ASEAN ties caused by ASEAN's insistence of non-interference in the internal affairs of member states and US animosity towards the rights-abusing military regime.

Some Chinese officials read into Washington's new engagement the beginning of US competition for influence in Myanmar. The US currently has no development programs, no civil-society building projects and no military exchanges with Myanmar with which to build relations and influence policy. Even diplomatic relations are handled by a charge d'affaires since its ambassador was recalled following the violent repression of pro-democracy protesters in 1988.

Without this presence, the US has no diplomatic tools with which to balance growing Chinese strategic and economic interests in the country. With renewed diplomatic relations and a new push for reform, the US is aiming to build those and establish influence. The US has made it clear on several occasions, most recently following a visit to Myanmar by Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian Affairs Kurt Campbell, that sanctions will not be removed until the junta shows clear progress towards an inclusive political process and free and fair elections.

The US has also reserved the right to increase sanctions should the regime step out of line, as it did in 2007 when it cracked down on peaceful Buddhist monk-led protests. In an address over the weekend to ASEAN leaders, including Myanmar Prime Minister Lieutenant General Thein Sein, Obama called for the release of pro-democracy leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, and other political prisoners, and for an end to repression of ethnic minorities. Obama, however, failed to get his call to freedom included in a joint US-ASEAN statement following the meeting, which only called for the 2010 elections in Myanmar to be "conducted in a free, fair, inclusive and transparent manner".

Myanmar has not been the only focus of the Obama administration's re-engagement with Southeast Asia. Two other countries viewed as Chinese allies in the region - Cambodia and Laos - have also seen recent US moves aimed to balance Beijing's influence. For instance, US development and military aid has recently been increased in both countries.

Earlier this year, Obama removed Cambodia and Laos from a long-maintained trade blacklist which will open the way for American companies to apply for financing through the US Export-Import Bank for loan guarantees, export credit insurance and working capital guarantees. The US has also stepped up military cooperation with Cambodia, providing it with military equipment and agreeing to participate for the first time in joint military exercises next year.

Even traditional American ally, Thailand, is slated to receive stepped-up US aid in the wake of a perceived slight shift towards China during the premiership of now exiled former premier, Thaksin Shinawatra. A new United States Agency for International Development program aimed at improving civil society structures and media capacity across the country is planned for next year. The program will include projects in the restive southern Muslim region where both Thailand and the US had previously sought to keep US involvement to a minimum.

Renewed US interest in the region will be welcomed by most ASEAN members as a useful counterbalance to China's surging influence. Although China has become an increasingly powerful economic force in the region, their export-driven economies still rely on US markets to fuel growth. And America's military still plays a leading role in many regional countries, including as a source of weapons and training to counter-terrorism forces in Indonesia and the Philippines, where terror networks linked to al-Qaeda are still active.

How the US calibrates its new engagement, and how China reacts, will go some way in determining the region's future stability and prosperity.

Brian McCartan is a Bangkok-based freelance journalist. He may be reached at brianpm@comcast.net.

(Copyright 2009 Asia Times Online (Holdings) Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact us about sales, syndication and republishing.)


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