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
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
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
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
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,
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."
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
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
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