James Anderson writes from Yangon: Where did President Obama first head for after his re-election earlier this month? South East Asia. The message is loud and clear. Asia is now America’s main priority. Take a back seat Europe. Commentators place security as America’s top priority on the continent. This is not accurate. Economic and governance interests are also of growing significance. With the economy of the European Union in the doldrums, America needs to connect to the dynamic, fast expanding economies of India and South East Asia. Regional powers do not need reminding that the US defence umbrella has permitted them to expand their economies and trade significantly. Needless to say the elephant in the room is China. The ongoing conflicts in the South China Sea underline the tensions which exist with a rising Middle Kingdom.
South East Asia is one of the few subjects on which there is bi-partisan agreement in Washington. It was noticeable that in the final debate between the President and Mitt Romney the region was not mentioned. In other words, Republicans and Democrats agree that Asia should be central to their foreign policy initiatives.
Obama’s first visit was to Thailand. It came soon after Leon Panetta, US Defence Secretary, visited Bangkok to reaffirm the US-Thai defence partnership. From Washington’s point of view a long band of states including India, Myanmar, Thailand, Vietnam, Indonesia, the Philippines, South Korea and Japan have common defence interests. They all have borders or are close to the borders of China.
Washington is pleased that Thailand wishes to join the Trans-Pacific Partnership championed by Obama. This could lead to other countries in the region joining.
Obama’s six hour visit to Myanmar (he uses this term instead of Burma) is the first by a US President in office. He met President Thein Sein and Aung San Suu Kyi. In a speech to students at Yangon University he stressed that Myanmar has only just begun a long journey towards reform and change. America would help to develop the economy. He called for an end to communal violence between Muslims and Buddhists in Rakhine state. There are over 150 ethnic groups in Myanmar. Encouragingly, the government has signed cease fire agreements with ten of the eleven ethnic states. The President has been criticised by human rights activists for coming too soon. No concessions were made to ensure his arrival. However hundreds of political prisoners have been released. He did not visit the new capital, Nay Pyi Taw.
The final port of call is Cambodia where he is participating in the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) summit. This is the second year running that he has attended this summit, symbolically underlining the importance of the region to America. Before his arrival ASEAN announced the beginning of negotiations to launch the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) which is intended to include the ten ASEAN members and Australia, New Zealand, China, India, Japan and South Korea. It is aiming to become the largest free trade grouping in the world. The United States was not invited to join and continues to stress the importance of the Trans-Pacific Partnership. However Washington welcomes the formation of RCEP as a vehicle for integrating the economies of the region. The hope is that it will gradually coalesce with the Trans-Pacific Partnership.
Before the summit, ASEAN announced it would not ‘internationalise’ the territorial conflict between some of its members and China in the South China Sea. This means that the United States and Japan, both of which maintain that they have a strategic interest in the South China Sea, will not be able to raise the issue formally at the summit. This is a clear victory for China which maintains that each dispute should be resolved bilaterally. Obama will need his silver tongue to make progress here.