After a bit of a hiatus due to a research trip to Southeast Asia and some dissertation work, I’m returning to regular blogging. And in light of the rather alarmist media coverage on Obama’s missed trip to Asia, I’ve written a somewhat contrarian piece for The Diplomat putting it in broader perspective in terms of the administration’s Asia policy, its record relative to its predecessors, and what it can do to mitigate any damage from the trip that wasn’t. I’ve pasted it below, but you can also read the original version here.
The Pivot Lives On, With or Without Obama
October 7, 2013
As expected, the cancellation of U.S. President Barack Obama’s trip to Southeast Asia to attend a host of bilateral and regional meetings has been simplistically and sensationally framed as a blow to the administration’s “pivot” to Asia and a victory for an ascendant China.
There is but a grain of truth in all this. Perceptually, Obama’s absence does compound worries about the sustainability of America’s commitment to the Asia-Pacific given its fiscal irresponsibility and political dysfunction back home. And substantively, the president has missed a golden opportunity to reiterate his commitment to Asian regionalism as well as shore up key bilateral relationships, most notably with Malaysia and the Philippines.
But while one ought not to understate the significance of Obama’s canceled Asia trip, one should not exaggerate it either as some commentators have done. The trip was canceled under a very unique set of domestic circumstances, and it does not detract from America’s deepening diplomatic engagement with Asia over the past few decades, which has only accelerated under the Obama administration. Furthermore, Washington can still recover from this setback if it plays its cards right.
First, it bears repeating that the decision to nix Obama’s trip was made amid a domestic crisis. The president would have been absent in Washington amid the first government shutdown in almost two decades and an unresolved debt ceiling impasse with Republicans, which the U.S. Treasury Department says could result in a 2008-like financial crisis. The last time the U.S. government shut down in 1995, then-president Bill Clinton was forced to cancel his Asia voyage as well.
Obama has also been much more insistent on traveling to Asia in spite of distractions from other regions relative to his predecessors. He still made his four-day, three-country trip to Asia last year despite a raging conflict in Gaza and a looming fiscal cliff, even though it meant working the phones till the wee hours of the morning to deal with these crises. In contrast, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush canceled trips to Malaysia in 1998 and Singapore in 2007 respectively because they were occupied with the Middle East. The president’s commitment is partly why this trip cancellation was not read as a snub by the region’s leaders as they often were in previous administrations, with Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak even admitting that he would have done the same thing if he were in Obama’s shoes.
Second, while the Obama no-show is regrettable, one should not mistake it for the demise of Washington’s “pivot” to Asia. Beyond this single visit, just the deepening diplomatic commitment in the Obama years alone has been unprecedented, with the birth of an annual U.S.-ASEAN Leaders Meeting, the placement of the East Asia Summit on the presidential calendar, and the stationing of a U.S. ambassador to ASEAN in Jakarta. Some of these ideas also build off of the policies of previous administrations, which attest to the bipartisan and sustained nature of America’s growing engagement with Asia. One cancelled trip will not change all this.
Furthermore, despite Obama’s absence, other administration officials are also in the region to advance several key initiatives on his behalf. For instance, while some were concerned that the president’s absence would delay talks on the U.S.-led Trans-Pacific Partnership, officials on the ground at APEC say that U.S. Trade Representative Michael Froman, along with other U.S. negotiators who arrived in Bali before the shutdown on October 1, have in fact been working on a deal with hopes of meeting the year-end deadline. U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel also just concluded a week-long trip to South Korea and Japan to reaffirm America’s commitment to its two Northeast Asian treaty allies.
Third, beyond optics, it is unclear whether Obama’s absence will truly be a boon for Beijing as much as some have suggested. Though Chinese President Xi Jinping’s first trip to Southeast Asia has received a lot of media attention, the greatest obstacle to better ASEAN-China ties is not the lack of visits or commercial deals, but Beijing’s growing assertiveness in the region over the past few years. A series of events, most notably China’s saber-rattling with ASEAN countries in the South China Sea and its role in undermining ASEAN in Phnom Penh in 2012, have caused unease in Southeast Asian capitals about how a much larger and increasingly powerful Beijing will treat its smaller neighbors in the coming years. Upstaging the United States in a round of regional summits will not alter this reality, and removing this obstacle will require a significant policy change on issues like the South China Sea which Beijing shows few signs of undertaking.
Fourth, the administration still has time to recover from this with a few years left in the president’s term. The bilateral trips to the Philippines and Malaysia can be rescheduled, just as was done with those to Indonesia and Australia earlier in the president’s first term. And while regional meetings cannot be postponed, administration officials can place added emphasis on implementing new ideas for such forums in the future. For example, U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel can follow through on his invitation to ASEAN defense ministers to visit Hawaii in 2014, which would be the first-ever meeting of its kind hosted by the U.S.
Obama’s decision to cancel his trip to Asia was an unfortunate one with real consequences for the United States. But as Indonesian Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa said after receiving the news, U.S. engagement in the region is “a continuous, rather than an event-based fact.” In leafing through the media coverage on the cancellation, one should not miss the forest for the trees.
This is a big week for ASEAN-related summitry, and the headlines will usually center on things like territorial disputes in the South China Sea, progress on the ASEAN Economic Community and some developments on the haze issue.
But one area that has seen progress but gets little attention is ASEAN-Japan relations. I’ve already harped on how this is important and why we may see strengthened ties this year, which is the 40th anniversary of the official relationship here and here. But here have also been promising moves over the past week from both sides, with Japan easing some visa entry requirements for ASEAN travelers and both sides agreeing to discuss maritime security in their December summit.
Though these may seem like small steps, they are significant and worth keeping an eye on.
In it, I outline several steps to sustain Europe’s recent increasing attention to Southeast Asia in the economic, security and cultural realms. While much ink has been spilled on America’s pivot to Asia, I continue to believe it is important to pay equal attention to the EU’s shift to the East as well.
Here is an excerpt:
During his visit to Singapore recently German foreign minister Guido Westerwelle made a convincing case for deeper European Union engagement in Asia and more specifically with ASEAN. Germany is hardly alone in recognising this. Indeed, 2012 seemed to be the year of Europe’s pivot to Asia. Leading officials attended key Asian summits, and the EU made advances in its relationship with ASEAN by suspending sanctions on Myanmar, acceding to the ASEAN’s Treaty of Amity and Cooperation and completing a successful ministerial meeting in April.
But while ASEAN-EU ties have certainly warmed recently due to Europe’s increasing interest in the region, “upgrading” the relationship between the world’s two major regional integration initiatives will require sustained and significant progress by both sides across several areas in the coming years…
You can read the full thing here.
I’ve stressed repeatedly that the Mekong River, one of the world’s greatest rivers which provides food, water and transportation for tens of millions of people in mainland Southeast Asia, is under grave threat from a string of hydropower projects as well as other potential development, demographic and climate-change related pressures.
A fierce debate occurred last month at the recent Mekong River Commission (MRC) meeting between Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia and Thailand over Laos’ Xayaburi dam – a project Vientiane is choosing to move forward with despite the lack of regional consultation required. The project and the controversy surrounding it has important implications not just for the Mekong River, but sustainable development in the Southeast Asia more generally.
I’ve penned an op-ed published in a Malaysian newspaper setting out a series of steps for riparian nations to take. The recommendations cover not only Laos, but China, which has already built several dams upstream and is still not part of the MRC, Thailand which is going to get most of the electricity from the Xayaburi project, as well as other donor countries and institutions.
I won’t re-publish the whole article here, but I wanted to highlight one of the recommendations I made.
Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos and Thailand should recognise that while they have a sovereign right to develop their economies, they must also ensure that dam projects are backed up by adequate input and research and adhere to obligations they have previously signed to.
For instance, Laos, a landlocked and poor country, may view hydropower as a gateway to development. But since Vientiane already agreed in December 2011 to postpone a decision on the Xayaburi pending further study, starting it now will violate that commitment as well as the 1995 Mekong Agreement, which requires regional consultation for development projects.
Even if countries decide to go ahead with dams, the process by which decisions are made and they are eventually built needs to be fair and inclusive. Proper research and analysis should be conducted and diverse interest groups must be adequately consulted. Equally important, government officials should have the adequate capacity to conduct these assessments and the necessary impartiality to resist being captured by powerful commercial interests.
Obviously, all this is not new and is easier said than done. But it is worth re-emphasizing what is at stake here and how countries can help overcome what might be a lingering crisis over the horizon. And that framing the issue in terms of the economy vs. the environment won’t help us get there.
You can read the full thing here.
Yesterday, The Financial Times’ blog on emerging markets reported that analysts seem increasingly confident that the country will continue posting strong growth in 2013 and into 2014 as well:
International lenders and investors expect the Philippines to sustain its growth momentum in the next few years on the back of a possible improvement in the country’s credit rating to investment grade later this year. The World Bank predicts the Philippine economy will expand by 6.2 per cent this year and 6.4 per cent next year.
If they are right, this would mark a significant departure from the Philippines’ past record of erratic growth. Just to give you an idea of how deeply entrenched this pattern has been over the past few decades:
…Only nine times since the 1960s has annual GDP growth clocked in at more than six per cent. Except in one instance, growth has always slumped in the year following such strong performance, with the rate of growth dropping an average of three percentage points, according to government data.
So there’s no doubt that the Philippines growth story – if it materializes as analysts are saying it will – is not only promising for the country’s future but also a welcome break from its past. What remains to be seen is whether those expectations will become a reality.
The stellar group of Asia hands at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) has released an updated report articulating policy recommendations for the second Obama administration with respect to economic strategy in Asia.
The report covers several key countries including Japan, Korea, India, China and ASEAN. Some of the recommendations include supporting ASEAN ‘connectivity’ efforts and working towards a full US-ASEAN Free Trade Agreement (FTA), expanding cooperation with Japan and Korea in the G-20 and bringing them into the fold of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), establishing an ambitious 10-year “New Framework for U.S.-India Economic Cooperation”, and modifying the Strategic and Economic Dialogue (S&ED) with China.
There is also a list of lessons learned recommended for policymakers drawing partly on an earlier report released on the subject for Obama’s first term, which deals with issues like negotiation, public relations and bureaucratic politics.
One of the key challenges that the study highlights for the future of Asia economic policy is the resource constraints in Washington:
For the United States to have an effective strategy in Asia, and to be taken seriously by partners there, it must have sufficient talent and resources for the job. At present, U.S. government personnel and funding devoted to Asia policy, especially in the economic arena, are insufficient to the size, challenges, and opportunities of the region. In particular, the State Department and other agencies traditionally focused on political and security issues need more senior officials versed in Asian economics.
You can read the full thing here.
2013 is the 40th anniversary of ASEAN-Japan relations, so we can expect a flood of commentary to accompany the ceremony this year. I’ve written a blog piece for Foreign Policy looking at the recent flurry of visits by Japanese officials to Southeast Asian capitals over the past few weeks.
In it, I highlight some of the opportunities in ASEAN-Japan relations, which lie in various areas from economics to maritime security to people-to-people ties. But while there is plenty to celebrate, I also look at the challenges which tend to get less of an emphasis. Quoting from the article:
Yet Tokyo faces several challenges as it courts ASEAN. To some, Abe’s rhetoric on democracy and human rights rings hollow: he was silent on those issues in Vietnam despite a recent government crackdown there. And while Japan and Southeast Asian states both have territorial disputes with China, any sense that Tokyo is enlisting ASEAN in a broad effort to contain Beijing could produce a squabble between the organization’s hawks and doves.
Japan’s domestic priorities may also make advancing the relationship difficult. Japan’s seventh prime minister in just six years must secure his political legitimacy while reviving the country’s moribund economy. Over the next few months, his administration will likely be consumed by its main short-term goal of securing victory in this summer’s Upper House elections.
You can read the full thing here.