Guest Column

Ten Reasons Asean Prefers Obama

By Kavi Chongkittavorn 5 November 2012

On Tuesday, the international community will learn who voters in the United States will choose for their new leader. For the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean), it is crystal clear that the incumbent should remain president. Here are 10 reasons for choosing Barack Obama.

1. In general, Asean leaders want Obama to take part in the upcoming East Asia Summit (EAS), which will be held two weeks after polling in Phnom Penh. The seventh EAS will be one of the most important meetings between leaders of Asean and the world’s most powerful countries including the US, Russia, China and India, as each undergoes substantive changes dictated by their own domestic and external dynamics. To Asean, Obama represents a continuity of US commitment to Asia.

2. If the presidential challenger, Mitt Romney, wins the race, he would have no reason to travel to Southeast Asia at any future date. His first task would be to consolidate his new administrative team as well as reshape US foreign policy towards the Middle East, focusing on Israel and Iran. If Asia matters, it is all about China and Japan. Asean will be very low on his list.

3. The Asean chair, Cambodia, is so excited about the upcoming EAS that a spokesman for the Foreign Ministry in Phnom Penh announced on Tuesday that Obama has confirmed that he would attend. It is a clear indication that the White House is confident of his victory in the presidential race.

After July’s hiccup regarding the failure to issue the joint communiqué at the end of Asean annual meeting, Cambodia badly wants to demonstrate that it has a neutral foreign policy regarding major powers, especially towards the US and China.

4. Both Burma and Thailand are anxious to find out if Obama will confirm stopovers during the trip to and from Phnom Penh. Advance security teams from the US have already visited these countries to prepare the ground for his surprise visits ahead of the EAS.

The trip to three Asean members would be historic, especially for Burma. The recent reforms in the former rogue state have won praise from all over the world, so much so that Obama cannot just ignore. Indeed, US-Burma relations appear to be on a rollercoaster after President Thein Sein and opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi’s recent visits to North America.

For him to come this far and visit Cambodia and Burma without touching down on tarmac in Thailand, a long-standing US ally, would be utterly impossible. To reinforce the pivotal role of Thailand, US Defense Secretary Leon Penetta is scheduled to stop over in Bangkok before heading for Siem Reap on Nov. 15. US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton will also visit the Thai capital two days later on her way to Phnom Penh.

5. If there has ever been any US president that is knowledgeable and appreciative of Asean, it is Obama. Over the past four years, he has developed close rapport and a calm assurance most of the bloc’s leaders. In fact, Asean is thinking of scheduling another round of leaders’ meetings with the incumbent US president in the future.

They have already met a few times with Obama, and these encounters generally produce substantive results. It is not wrong to say that Obama helps define and sustain the US’s role in their relations with Asean.

6. The US rebalancing policy has won accolades amongst Asean leaders. With the incumbent remaining at the White House, this policy will enter its second phase with intensified US engagement with group members in all areas. Obama’s scheduled visit to Burma after the EAS and its invitation to Naypyidaw to be an observer in the Cobra Gold exercise next year is a clear indication of Washington’s intention to augment its security cooperation with all Asean members.

This will be a new security toolbox for the region. With a stronger US presence and commitment, the Washington-initiated Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) is gaining ground as additional Asean members try to enter the negotiation process. Thailand would be one among them. Again, Obama’s challenger would not focus on Asia as a whole, even though his Republican predecessor, former President George W. Bush, did make efforts to formulate distinctive diplomacy toward Asia and Asean, particularly on his second term.

7. Asean wants a US president with a practical foreign policy towards China. Proximity to the world’s second largest economy does provide both comfort and stress for Asean. The US as a balancing force is situated in a faraway part of the world. In the past when China was poor and underdeveloped, it did not pose any threat.

Now, Asean is learning how to cope anew with a China that stands tall and is proud of its achievements. The Obama administration’s policy is both competitive and collaborative which augurs well with the Asean approach to the two super dialogue partners. Asean will benefit from this balanced approach providing it has sufficient room to engage and secure influence in ways that would increase the region’s profile, rather than dampen it.

8. Asean prefers a US leader who does not treat Russia as an enemy as it would have a direct impact on overall regional peace and stability. Russia under third-time President Vladimir Putin is returning to the region, in particular the previous Indochina, where the former Soviet Union used to reign supreme.

Moscow wants closer cooperation with Asean and is willing to do more to harness these relations. Visits to Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia still betray remnants of its once powerful presence. Back in 2005, it was Moscow which first demonstrated eagerness to attend the nascent EAS.

9. With the same US president, Asean leaders will have extra time to contemplate on the new Chinese leaders in place next week. For the past decade, Asean has taken for granted that China would not act assertively as it would be accommodative to the bloc’s interests and remain at best benign. Of late, disputes in the South China Sea have changed this long-standing perception.

From now on, Asean, individually and collectively, will have to decipher a new batch of younger Chinese leaders and their motives toward the region. Failure to do so would further deepen mutual suspicion that both sides could not afford to have at this juncture.

At the Asean-China retreat in Pattaya at the end of October, senior officials from both sides could not agree on the exact date to kick off negotiations on a code of conduct for the South China Sea. While the Asean officials were soft and positive, Beijing, instead, delivered direct and tough words over the maritime situation by reiterating that it would no longer hold back—any provocation would see a proportional response to the perceived threat to China at the time. This did not bode well for the upcoming EAS as the issue is likely to be raised along with other territorial disputes in this part of the world.

10. Asean leaders, especially those from Muslim countries, do not like proposed US policy under Romney that seems intent on war with Iran as they have maintained good bilateral relations with the Arab state. Despite sanctions, some Asean members have continued to trade with Iran. Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand have extensive economic ties which they will not want to see jeopardized.

This article first appeared in the Bangkok-based The Nation newspaper. Kavi Chongkittavorn is assistant group editor of Nation Media Group and his views do not necessarily reflect those of The Irrawaddy.