The Ides of November - How November Defines US Engagement in ASEAN
April 19, 2010
Put yourself in Kurt Campbell’s shoes – Jeff Bader’s moccasins would work too – and think about this November. It’s not quite a horror movie – more like Gallipoli.
The scene is Bader’s office in the Old Executive Office Building, the camera slowly pans 360 – security safe a crack open with papers hanging out, cabinet spilling over with books on various moments in Asian history, half-empty take-out container with braised tofu teasing mold, rumpled couch looking slept on, 14-foot ceilings feeling unappreciated. Campbell standing next to Bader, seated, both grimacing, brows knit in unison. The camera pans down Kurt’s arm past the signature orange watch wristband to his hand growing roots into Jeff’s desk; next to it is a calendar – the POTUS’s calendar for November 2010. A pink Post-it with Rahm Emanuel’s extension stuck to the upper left corner ... key Tubular Bells music. …
November is ugly. It defines the challenge for U.S. policy in Asia. The president, one of the most capable, articulate, and marketable leaders in recent history – a guy who actually grew up in Indonesia for several years – has defined himself as the “Pacific president.” Commitments have been made – “We get it,” “Being there is 90 percent of the game in Asia,” we look forward to the second ASEAN-U.S. Summit.
The low-hanging fruit left by the Bush administration has been plucked. Officials at the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs rock back on their davenport smiling as they see the potential for the earlier-than-expected fruition of their prophecies that the United States can say it is committed to Asia, but that it can’t sustain that commitment. Are they right?
Now it’s time to deliver, to show up – or to be marvelously innovative.
A drop of sweat pops onto the calendar below with a pop! that shakes both men. They stare:
- Nov 2 – U.S. mid-term elections;
- Nov 11–12, G-20 Summit in Seoul;
- Nov 13–14, APEC Leaders meeting in Yokohama. …
The heat is on the Democrats in the House and Senate; the Republicans have decided to go completely “no” and rely on historical patterns of anti-incumbency in mid-term elections, particularly acute when your party holds the White House and both chambers on the Hill. That makes a trade agenda, the fundamental platform of credible and sustainable Asia policy, untouchable. The G-20 is the new global architecture and hosted by the president’s good friend, Korean president Lee Myung-bak – he’ll be there. The APEC Leaders meeting is a must because you can’t no-show, no matter how badly Hatoyama is jangling the Alliance, when you are hosting the party in Hawaii next year.
What about the U.S.-ASEAN Summit? It is core to U.S. engagement in regional trade and security architecture. Secretary Clinton said the centrality of ASEAN was a core principle for Asian regionalism in her Honolulu speech just three months ago. The president has committed to attend after verily initiating the forum in Singapore last November. ASEAN has invited the president to Hanoi – but in October, which is the date for the ASEAN Summit, ASEAN + 3, and the East Asia Summit (EAS).
Truth be told, Hanoi would make so much sense – a diplomatic hat trick in the waiting. It is the fifteenth anniversary of U.S.-Vietnam relations, Hanoi’s one-thousandth birthday, and a chance to promote, without even saying a word, just by being there, economic reformers and pro-engagement Vietnamese leaders who are being challenged by the withered but powerful septa- and octogenarians in the Communist Party of Vietnam in the run-up to the 11th National Party Congress in early 2011.
But October is a non-starter. The Chicago Mafia, the president’s political cerebral cortex in the White House, won’t let him out in the world weeks ahead of mid-terms. They’ve demonstrated their muscle twice before, smothering planned Indonesia visits in favor of trips to Ohio to stump for health care reform – and not without results. Yet, ASEAN has clearly indicated it is not possible to hold a U.S.-ASEAN Summit on Japanese (or another other non-ASEAN-American) soil.
Campbell and Bader are experienced, capable officials. But their options are limited. The domestic political forces in the White House are empowered and don’t even consider such conflicts to be a competition. The president will need to step in and make his views known. If he does so, there is a way to lead in Asia. Make no mistake; getting ASEAN right is fundamental to American strength in dealing with China, Japan, India, and the rest of Asia.
The options are:
- Add two days in Hanoi after APEC and convince the ASEAN leaders to fly from Japan to Hanoi to hold the 2nd Annual U.S.-ASEAN Summit;
- Add Hanoi to the planned June trip to Indonesia and Australia;
- Invite the ASEAN leaders to Hawaii or Washington on their way to or from the UN General Assembly meeting in September.
The pressure is on. The stakes are high. But this movie could and should end with a happy ending.
THE WEEK THAT WAS
- President Obama scored big with multilateralism. He successfully convened the first World Nuclear Security Summit with 47 world leaders gathered in Washington, D.C. While security analysts noted with regret that Iran and North Korea were absent and there was no significant international consensus on both countries, the two-day summit delivered several major outcomes: Ukraine, Mexico, and Canada declared their intention to give up highly enriched uranium; Russia and the United States signed the landmark START agreement to reduce stocks of nuclear materials; and China decided to join in discussions on reining in Iran's nuclear program.
- President Obama held bilateral talks with the leaders of China and Malaysia on the fringes of the summit, which signifies the growing importance of the region. The discussion was a timely realignment of Sino-U.S. ties, replete with a 90-minute exchange between the American and Chinese presidents. Notably, President Obama raised concerns about China’s currency. President Hu presented a five-point proposal for improving China-U.S. relations and also referred pointedly to the Taiwan and Tibet issues in hopes that “the United States would keep its promises and handle these issues with caution, so that further setbacks in China-U.S. ties could be averted.”
- Malaysian Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak had a 40-minute bilateral consultation with President Obama. Political observers hailed Malaysia as one of the winners of the summit, as most aptly described by PM Najib himself after presenting his views on the key pillars of cooperation in Malaysia-U.S. relations at a CSIS event on Wednesday, April 14, where he candidly said, "The very fact that you can get a piece of the president's time by itself during a summit of 47 leaders means something; it means you are important enough and that Malaysia is important enough." The bilateral meeting signals a potentially significant shift in relations with the United States, and it is expected to position Malaysia more prominently on Washington’s radar. Prime Minister Najib’s speech and panels with top US and Malaysian officials discussing trade and investment and the security and defense relationships can be found on our website.
- While in Washington for the Summit, Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong met with key members of the U.S. economic team and U.S. senators, including Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, and U.S. Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner. PM Lee and Secretary Clinton discussed how the United States can further engage ASEAN and Asia through new regional architecture like the Asean+8 and the Trans-Pacific Partnership.
- Thai Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva cancelled his participation in the Summit due to the political situation in Thailand, but was represented by Foreign Minister Kasit Piromya. Minister Kasit asked the United States and friends to Thailand to get engaged and encourage both sides to come to the table to negotiate a settlement. He indicated that elections could not be held unless the protesters agreed to certain criteria including and particularly the guarantee that Dr. Thaksin Shinawatra not be included in Thai politics. Minister Kasit labeled elements within the protester group as “terrorists” and urged the United States to use anti-money laundering and other laws to help Thailand “bring Thaksin to justice”.
- Vietnam’s Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung kept a fairly low profile during his time in Washington, DC but did engage with the US business community to promise the continuation of pro-business and pro-investment environment in Vietnam. Price controls and other anti-inflation and import control measures have concerned the business sector in Vietnam.
- Indonesian President Susilio Bambang Yudhuyono did not travel to Washington, DC for the Summit but sent Vice President Boediono, Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa, Energy Minister Dr. Darwin Zahedy Saleh, Investment Coordinating Board Chairman Gita Wirjawan and Presidential Spokesmen (and rumored next Ambassador to the United States) Dino Djalal. Gita Wirjawan came to CSIS and spoke to experts, scholars and business leaders about Indonesia, its current directions and the President’s goals for investment in infrastructure and other areas. Pak Gita signed an agreement with the US Overseas Private Investment Corporation (OPIC) on Tuesday in Washington, a move expected to enable more U.S. investment in Indonesia. To see or hear Pak Gita’s interview click here.
- The Asia Pacific Ministerial Conference on Public Private Partnership for Infrastructure Development 2010 at the Jakarta International Expo in Central Jakarta opened on Thursday, April 15, at the Jakarta International Expo in Central Jakarta. President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono of Indonesia expects the Jakarta Declaration, a scheme between governments and private institutions in Asia-Pacific countries on infrastructure building, to be concluded during the conference.
- The political situation in Thailand remains mired. As of this writing, Prime Minister Abhisit had empowered Army Commander Anupong Paochinda to take control of the security situation replacing Deputy Prime Minister Suthep Thaugsuban. Suthep remains in charge of the Centre for Resolution of Emergency Situations (CRES). In additional developments this week, Thailand’s Election Commission (EC) recommended that the ruling Democrat Party be disbanded for a 2005 electoral law violation. Those charges must be reviewed by the Attorney General’s office and if the charges are not supported by the AG, they will be referred to the Constitutional Court. If the Democrat Party was dissolved, senior leaders could be banned from politics for five years.
- Two natural disasters hit different parts of Asia earlier this week. A deadly storm killed at least 122 people and left an estimated 100,000 homeless in the eastern part of India. In China's Qinghai Province, the death toll had climbed to 791 and 11,486 people were left injured after a 7.1 magnitude earthquake shook a Tibetan area in the Yushu County in the Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture Wednesday morning.
- Premier Wen Jiabao of China, who was originally scheduled to visit three ASEAN countries—Indonesia, Brunei, and Burma—from April 22 to 25, postponed his planned visit. The trips were originally planned to mark the anniversaries of the establishment of diplomatic relations with China and the respective countries.
- A group of 10 Chinese vessels and submarines passed 140 km (90 miles) southwest of Okinawa last Saturday. Even though the Chinese vessels, which included submarines, destroyers, and frigates, remained within international waters, Japan expressed concern about the “unprecedented” nature of the naval action. While Japan maintained that China did not violate any international law by navigating in that area, it said it would launch an investigation. China said its ships were there as part of a routine training exercise.
- In contrast, Philippines welcomed a Chinese missile frigate—Ma'anshan—the flagship of China's Task Force 525, onto its docks after it completed a 128-day mission. It is reported that the five-day port call in Manila will include talks between Chinese and Philippine navy officials.
- In Southern Philippines, about 25 Abu Sayyaf militants were involved in the attacks in Isabela city on the island province of Basilan, which left 14 dead. Basilan police said that “Abu Sayyaf was being used to sow violence, it was not pure terrorism” and that the attackers “are seemingly mercenaries” used for political purposes. Although the military considered the attacks as terrorism, they had rejected suggestions that Moro Islamic Liberation Front was involved in the blast. It was reported in Philippine media that Michael Vickers, U.S. assistant secretary of defense for special operations, low intensity conflict, and independent capabilities, was due to arrive in the country on Wednesday; however later reports indicated that Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense Garry Reid visited the Philippines instead, as “part of a routine trip through the Asia-Pacific region.”
- In Burma, detained Burmese opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi required some hospital attention, triggering concerns about her state of health. She was admitted to the hospital and was discharged 45 minutes later, according to reports.
- The Asian Development Bank said that Asia's economies were on track for a "robust recovery," with China and India leading growth estimates. China’s economy is predicted to grow 9.6 percent in 2010. Southeast Asian economies are expected to grow 5.1percent this year, up from 1.2 percent in 2009, with Thailand, Cambodia, and Malaysia experiencing an increase in exports. Singapore’s Ministry of Trade and Industry also revised Singapore’s overall growth in 2010 from 7.0 percent to 9.0 percent and announced that it has commenced the initial round of the first review of the China-Singapore Free Trade Agreement (CSFTA), the first comprehensive bilateral FTA that China has signed with an Asian country.
THE WEEK AHEAD
- CSIS Southeast Asia program will be hosting “Tasting Alphabet Soup: Asian Regionalism and US Policy” with Professor Donald K. Emmerson, from Stanford University, where he heads the Southeast Asia Forum in the Shorenstein Asia-Pacific Research Center in the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies. Interested parties can register at SoutheastAsiaProgram@csis.org.
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