Guest Column

Obama Visit to Firm up US Policy on Asia

By Kavi Chongkittavorn 12 November 2012

Freshly re-elected President Barack Obama’s visit to Thailand, Burma and Cambodia later this week will be an extremely important step to firm up his Asia-Pacific policy, often described as a “pivot” to the region. The expected 80-hour stopover will embed the US presence and future power projection in the region in the context of China’s rising influence. It will also turn the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) into an arena where the world’s two superpowers can cajole, cooperate and compete.

Obama will become the first American leader to visit half of the Asean members during his first term. Vietnam could have been included in the itinerary this time but it was deliberately left out. Otherwise, the whole visit could easily be construed as a concerted effort to counter China’s growing influence. Despite the media spin that the US engagement with Asean comes at the region’s repeated request, the rise of China and its growing confidence remains a major focus, if not obsession, of the US re-balancing in the Asia-Pacific. Certainly, the historic trip has zeroed in on the three Asean members with special relations with China.

The planned working visit to Bangkok beginning late on Sunday afternoon and ending the next morning with Thai Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra will likely concentrate on reinvigorating Thai-US relations, especially the faltering Thai-US military alliance and its place in the new strategic environment in the region. Other key issues include closer economic and cultural cooperation and exchanges. After initial positive signals that it would begin negotiations to join the US-initiated Trans-Pacific Partnership, Thailand has since backtracked and will now promote Thai-US trade relations under the Trade and Investment Framework Agreement. Thailand and the US used to have shared economic and security interests, but the former’s political turmoil and inconsistency has gradually diminished its importance, while other Southeast Asian countries have adjusted and repositioned themselves within the emerging strategic landscape. Next year, the two countries will celebrate the 180th anniversary of their diplomatic relations. They are looking hard for fresh ideas for the occasion, which could include sports events, cultural performances and education exchanges.

After nearly a decade of searching for ways to improve the narrow perspective governing their bilateral relations and transform them into a broader regional context, Thailand and the US have finally come to terms with what they can do together in the future. During Obama’s visit, Thailand will announce its readiness to join the Proliferation Security Initiative (PSI). It has taken nine years for the Thai government to reach this decision. The framework was initiated in 2003 by President George W Bush to stop the spread of weapons of mass destruction (WMD) between state and non-state actors. The Thai authorities were concerned that the interdiction required under the PSI framework would violate the country’s sovereignty and local laws. Over the years, various Thai agencies have procrastinated, expressing reservations about any decision. Quite frankly, Thailand’s decision comes a bit too late but nonetheless it retains symbolic value. Unfortunately Bangkok’s good ties with Pyongyang and Tehran, two potential nuclear powers and perceived proliferators of WMD, could be problematic. Now, a total of 101 countries have joined the PSI’s international effort to promote nonproliferation.

Apart from the PSI cooperation, US Defence Secretary Leon Panetta, who is scheduled to arrive here on Thursday, hopes to revitalize military cooperation with Thailand, one of the five US allies in the Asia-Pacific. Thailand was accorded the status of major non-Nato ally (MNNA) at the end of 2003 following a brief but intense round of counter-terrorism cooperation with the US during the first Thaksin administration (2001-2004). The cooperation saw the surprise apprehension in August 2003 of Hambali, the Southeast Asian leader of al Qaida, as well as the dispatch that year of Thai troops to join the coalitions in Iraq and Afghanistan. Thailand has constantly complained that it has not benefited from the MNNA status.

The US hopes that Panetta’s visit will mark a new milestone in the Thai-US alliance, contributing to regional security beyond the bilateral level. Other US allies and friends such as Singapore and Vietnam have linked with each other as part of the new US strategic balancing framework. Thai military leaders have a fixed mindset that the alliance with the US, which was born out of the Cold War, is something very special between the two sides. In their minds, the US must stand ready to respond to the changing Thai national concerns from traditional military threats to institutional well-being and stability (royal and non-royal), food and energy security, environment protection, humanitarian assistance and disaster management and other issues. From the Thai perspective, the US has only responded to those interests that fit with the US security requirement. Thailand has often complied with US requests for uses of air bases and other covert cooperation that served the latter’s strategic interests. In comparison, China fares much better in this area with quite a positive image as far as reciprocity is concerned. That explains why public skepticism persists over the US attitude towards the Thai political situation and key institutions, not to mention the hullabaloo surrounding the US request to use U-tapao airbase for humanitarian assistance and disaster response and the aborted Nasa climate change study project. Nasa recently awarded the project to Singapore.

More than Thai officials would like to admit, the country’s longstanding inability to understand the importance of changing strategic contexts, and to transform the Thai-US alliance to serve regional security imperatives, has encouraged the US to look for alternatives. Rubbing salt into the wound, Thailand’s close relations with China and high tolerance of its assertiveness have further confounded US decision-makers. As the coordinating country for Asean-China relations (2012-2015), especially at a time when the South China Sea territorial disputes are high on the agenda, Thailand’s behavior toward China would always be friendly and reciprocal. Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao is scheduled to visit Bangkok after the Asean summit.

Bangkok’s close ties with Beijing have ironically increased Naypyidaw’s strategic value for the US. Burma’s ability to say no to China over the Myitsone Dam in Kachin State late last year demonstrated its desire to distance itself from China’s dominance and lessen the dependency on Beijing it had built up over the past three decades. That kind of clear action and policy has steered the US to move faster to normalize relations with Burma, which was once branded and condemned as a pariah state by the US and the West. The Thein Sein government has responded well to US demands in the past several months. Obama’s visit is scheduled for Nov. 19. It is a big endorsement of the ongoing reforms and future plans to integrate with the international community. However, continued serious human-rights violations and the plight of the Rohingya Muslim minority in Arakan State will cloud the president’s stopover in Rangoon, where he will meet Thein Sein and opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi.

Washington’s invitation to Naypyidaw to join the Cobra Gold war games as an observer next year sends a clear signal of what the US strategists have in mind. Burma’s international integration in both economic and security areas are priorities that will increase the overall capacity to lessen reliance on China. Cobra Gold, as the region’s largest military exercise, is a training ground for America’s friends to understand each other and work together in chosen areas. In the past few years, the focus was on humanitarian assistance and disaster response. Burma will dispatch three officials to observe the humanitarian assistance and disaster response, as well as military medical portions of the exercise. China is also an observer of the annual exercise, along with Brunei, Laos, the Netherlands, Russia, South Africa, Sri Lanka and the United Arab Emirates. Last December, Burma, Thailand, Laos and China began to coordinate security patrols of the Mekong River, which runs through their countries. It was hailed as the first multilateral security force initiated by China. Lower riparian countries Vietnam and Cambodia did not take part.

Obama’s last stop is Cambodia on Nov. 20. Cambodia is the current Asean chair and host of the 7th East Asia Summit (EAS). Akin to the rapidly improved US-Burma relations, China-Cambodia friendship has blossomed in the past 12 years, turning China into the country’s largest aid donor and investor. Since joining the EAS, Washington has skilfully used the Asean-led multilateral security platform to its advantage under the Obama administration. Credit must also go to US Secretary of State Hilary Clinton, who will make a low-profile visit here on Friday, for successfully highlighting the importance of freedom and safety of sea-lane communications in the South China Sea in July 2010. Since then, the US has made this the basis of its support of Asean’s ongoing effort to draft a binding regional code of conduct in the South China Sea, which has put China on the defensive. China says the timing is not good, especially during its leadership transition.

As the EAS chair, Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen plays an important role in overseeing the direction of discussion among the leaders, who tend to speak off the cuff. The region’s longest-reigning leader must avoid a repeat of the highly embarrassing incident at the Asean foreign ministers meeting in Phnom Penh in July, which saw the grouping’s first-ever failure to issue a joint communique due to differences over the South China Sea issue. Hun Sen’s performance will be crucial to the relevance of Asean centrality. With several overlapping areas in the headlines, everything the attending leaders and chair say or do at the EAS will impact on the summit’s outcome and its future direction. Asean must be neutral at the EAS forum, as this will be the most effective way for the grouping to eventually manage its relations with the US and China.