Obama Trip Shows Purposeful Asia Focus in Second Term

Forty-eight hours after winning reelection to a second term, President Barack Obama announced he would visit three countries in mainland Southeast Asia—Cambodia, Myanmar, and Thailand—from November 17 to 20. Actions speak louder than words; the visit shouts Obama’s intent for a purposeful focus on Asia in his second term.

This is not a typical Asia visit for a U.S. president. Nor is it a postelection victory lap. The itinerary is based on strategic intent and requires the political courage of a leader with a mandate. President Obama will be the first sitting president of the United States to visit Cambodia and Myanmar. In addition, he will follow his defense secretary, Leon Panetta, in visiting Thailand—Panetta will visit next week. Thailand is the United States’ longest-standing ally in Asia, and the visits of Secretary Panetta and President Obama will seek to inject new energy and vision into that special relationship.

Obama is carving out new patterns for U.S. engagement in Asia. No U.S. president since the Vietnam War era has made an Asia visit that focused completely on Southeast Asia. During his first term, Obama’s foreign policy team staked out a smart Asia policy that had ASEAN at its core. The approach recognizes that the best way to manage a fast-growing China that is feeling its way to defining its regional and global role would be to create Asia-Pacific architectures that would encourage China to make and play by the rules defined collectively by the neighborhood. This strategy includes the dual benefits of taking pressure off U.S.-China bilateral ties, which remain critical but now have regional and global context, and appealing to China’s national security strategy, which nominally seeks to avoid conflict with countries on its borders and near neighbors. The approach does not intend to contain China, but rather to convince it to become a great power while remaining aligned with countries around the Pacific and Indian Oceans.

In order to execute this strategy effectively, the United States will need to achieve two goals. First, as exemplified by the president’s visit, it must deepen relationships will all 10 of the ASEAN countries. This means developing a much more granular and in-depth set of ties and understandings of these countries. That effort is well underway. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has visited every ASEAN country and attended every ASEAN Regional Forum during her term. Her counterparts at the Pentagon, Secretary Panetta and his predecessor Robert Gates, have put in comparable efforts, along with PACOM commanders Robert Willard and Samuel Locklear. Related efforts by other U.S. departments have supported leadership at State and Defense, including notable efforts by the U.S. trade representative to start to attend the ASEAN Economic Ministers (AEM) meeting with Ambassador Ron Kirk’s participation this summer.

The second goal in executing the U.S. approach is to put the country’s fiscal house in order and build a political foundation for engagement in Asia among Americans. These objectives are works in progress. While President Obama’s trip to Asia sends a strong message, the power and sustained impact of U.S. engagement depends in the near term on avoiding driving the U.S. economy off the fiscal cliff and starting to tell Americans why Asia is a core part of economic recovery—and long-term growth and well-being. In fact, the true test of whether the president understands this linkage is whether he mentions the important role of trade and Asia when he talks about the economy in Washington.

The president’s visit to Myanmar and Cambodia has come under strong criticism from some human rights groups who argue that, by visiting countries that still have political prisoners and serious human rights problems, he is undercutting efforts to pressure for change. These campaigners play an important role, and their comments are useful in helping to remind U.S. partners that human rights and democracy are important parts of the quilt of U.S. foreign policy.

In the case of Myanmar, the president’s visit is likely to have historic impact lending momentum to political and economic reform. The country is in the midst of a real transformation, and the president should feel confident in sharing U.S. support for those reforms and encouraging change and evolution. He should directly address human rights concerns, particularly related to ongoing communal violence between Buddhists and Muslims in Rakhine state, and conflict between the government and Myanmar’s ethnic minority groups. There is a clear pattern established over the last year that strong encouragement has resulted in the release of political prisoners. There is every reason to believe that a focused push related to President Obama’s visit could result in additional releases.

In Cambodia, the president will attend his second East Asia Summit and fourth ASEAN-U.S. Leaders Meeting. His presence at these meetings is a fundamental down payment underlining the serious intent of U.S. involvement in the most important issues of the day in the Asia Pacific. He will discuss issues ranging from finding a way to peacefully resolve conflicts in the South China Sea and other maritime disputes to new modes for security cooperation focusing on delivery of public goods such as humanitarian assistance and disaster relief.

With ASEAN, he should signal a more forward-leaning posture on economic engagement and trade and lay out a proactive plan to achieve a long-term goal for a U.S.-ASEAN free trade agreement. In the near and medium term, this could be done through an accelerated plan to get the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) done (TPP includes four ASEAN members—Brunei, Malaysia, Singapore, and Vietnam) and work through ASEAN to build the capacity in its least-developed members to a level of confidence to join such high-level agreements.

The president should also widen the scope of U.S. trade engagement in Asia. He should argue that by setting a U.S.-ASEAN free trade agreement as a goal, the United States should also gain a seat at the table for the new Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), an ASEAN-based trade liberalization scheme that will be launched during the summits in Cambodia without the participation of the United States or Russia.

Finally, the president’s visit to Thailand is well timed. Expect Secretary Panetta and his Thai counterparts to set a new vision for the U.S.-Thailand alliance. Thailand is a major non-NATO ally of the United States, but both countries have an interest in restating what their close historical ties mean. The pillars of bilateral cooperation include mutual respect, regional stability, humanitarian assistance and disaster relief, and interoperability.

The president’s visit will incorporate those security objectives and broaden the context of the U.S.-Thailand relationship, emphasizing new opportunities for trade, people-to-people ties, and expanded cooperation on regional issues such as climate change, nonproliferation, and the fight against narcotics, human trafficking, and piracy.

U.S.-Thailand relations have been under some pressure ever since the 1997 Asian financial crisis. Many Thais felt the United States’ response, focusing more on moral hazard and the concomitant tough medicine, was less compassionate than expected. Views of the U.S. response after the 2006 military coup that ousted Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra were as divided as Thailand itself. Since that time, the relationship has recovered and is operating on a normal basis, but it does require a high-level realignment—a new common vision. This will not be easy to achieve at this stage because Thailand remains politically divided, but the president’s visit will be a signal to all Thais of the importance the United States accords the special relationship.

President Obama’s Asia visit is a bold and politically courageous step. It should send Asia a strong signal of intent for a president who has proclaimed himself “America’s first Pacific President.” To fulfill that self-described legacy, Obama must not only continue his good record of visiting the region and getting to know its leaders, he will need to lead a discussion among Americans about why Asia is important to this country’s immediate economic recovery, as well as its long-term prosperity and security.

Ernest Z. Bower is senior adviser and chair for Southeast Asia Studies at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.

Commentary is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

© 2012 by the Center for Strategic and International Studies. All rights reserved.


Ernest Z. Bower