While much ink has been spilled on the subject of Myanmar’s reform embrace since 2011, one of the side effects of that process has been the perceived erosion of China’s traditional dominance in Naypyidaw. More interesting and less emphasized has been what I’ve called Beijing’s “strategic recalibration” to adjust to this changing environment in order to preserve its interests there.
There is a recent article out on Asia Times Online by Yun Sun (formerly of the International Crisis Group and The Brookings Institution, and now at The Stimson Center) which provides a useful guide into China’s thinking on exactly this question. While I encourage you to read the whole thing, the aspect I found most interesting was Beijing’s efforts to cultivate relationships with other elements of Myanmar’s government, opposition and civil society.
In general, she notes that while Beijing has been irked by certain policies enacted by Naypyidaw over the past few months that undermine Chinese interests, that negativity seems to be restricted mostly to Then Sein (who Beijing believes is behind these initiatives) but not necessarily to his Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) more generally. Indeed, China has been praising the ambitions of Shwe Mann, the speaker of the Lower House and USDP chairman, who analysts privately perceive will most likely win the 2015 elections. I’ve noted the nuances of Beijing’s diplomacy as well in my piece.
Most interestingly, in terms of the opposition and civil society groups, while China has been trying to engage them for years, the current dilemma, Yun Sun suggests, seems to be whether and how to invite Aung San Suu Kyi for a formal visit to China. She claims that her evolution from pro-democracy icon to mainstream politician, her public statements on the importance of relations with China, and her perceived need for Beijing’s support in her 2015 presidential bid, have all helped ease earlier Chinese concerns. But will a visit actually take place? Yun Sun hints that this might be possible:
Some Chinese analysts believe Beijing will extend a formal invitation for her to visit the country in her official capacity as an opposition politician some time in 2014.
Of course, stirrings about Miss Suu Kyi’s potential visit to China have been going on for months without any sign of it actually occurring. She has been adamant about receiving an official invitation from the Chinese government (as opposed to semi-official organizations) before making the trip, although members of her party, the National League for Democracy (NLD), have paid four visits to Beijing just this year alone, with the last one occurring in November. But there are growing indications that a visit may happen sometime in the future, including reports that envoys of Miss Suu Kyi have already been in China to quietly lay the groundwork for it.
Yet another reason to keep an eye on Myanmar in 2014.
Yesterday, the Indian cabinet finally cleared the free trade agreement on services and investment with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) for approval, with Prime Minister Manmohan Singh reportedly overruling objections by the finance ministry.
The pact, which has encountered repeated delays and is way past its August 2013 deadline, was held up again last month due to differences between Indian finance minister P Chidambaram and commerce minister Anand Sharma, which allegedly prevented it from being signed in the World Trade Organization (WTO) meeting in Bali earlier this month. Mr. Chidambaram was reportedly concerned that Mr. Sharma did not adequately consult the finance ministry on the investment text of the agreement, in addition to several issues regarding the pact itself.
The cabinet clearance is significant because it now paves the way for India to ink the pact with ASEAN as soon as possible. Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh had said at the 11th ASEAN-India Summit earlier this year that his government’s goal would be to conclude the pact by the end of 2013, and while that looks unlikely at this time, New Delhi has at least avoided the humiliation of backtracking from a key commitment within the ASEAN-India relationship. The irony has not been missed by those watching ASEAN-India ties carefully, since Mr. Singh’s government had repeatedly said in the past that India was more committed to this pact than some ASEAN countries but the recent roadblock has come from New Delhi.
That is important because while ASEAN countries and other external powers are eager for India to play a greater role in the Asia-Pacific and New Delhi has shown an increasing willingness to do so, the follow-through has been tortuous on some initiatives. For instance, several Southeast Asian governments faced similar frustrations when ASEAN and India were negotiating an FTA in goods, which saw several delays and almost fell through before being finally concluded in 2011 after six long years.
But concluding this FTA is not just a question of pride or symbolism. As I have written before, Indian officials, including Foreign Minister Salman Khurshid, have warned that further delays in the agreement could undermine the goal of boosting ASEAN-India trade to $100 billion by 2015. The pact also has tangible benefits for New Delhi itself, including the movement of Indian professionals in Southeast Asia and greater investments in the services sector.
While Mr. Singh deserves credit for finally securing cabinet approval for the deal, his government should seek to conclude it as soon as possible to prevent it from being ensnared once again in Indian domestic politics with an election looming.
Yesterday, the U.S. Senate Committee on Foreign Relations subcommittee on East Asian and Pacific Affairs held a hearing on the U.S. rebalance to the Asia-Pacific, focusing particularly on the economic engagement piece. It featured two government officials as well as two scholars from think tanks, Matthew Goodman from the Center for Strategic and International Studies and Derek Scissors from the American Enterprise Institute.
All four testimonies – available online – contain some interesting thoughts about American economic policy in the Asia-Pacific. They discuss not only the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) but also other engagements at the bilateral and global levels and how these initiatives have evolved over time based on previous presidents.
Mr. Goodman’s testimony is particularly useful for those seeking to understand the current administration’s thinking given his role as former White House Coordinator for APEC and the East Asia Summit during U.S. President Barack Obama’s first term. He continues to be optimistic that the TPP will be reached by the time of Mr. Obama’s next planned visit to Asia in April 2014. He also stresses the importance of concluding it:
The TPP is the sine qua non of success not only for the administration’s regional economic policy but arguably for the entire Asia rebalancing strategy…Without TPP, the “rebalance” would contain little of substance that is new and would be perceived in the region as driven primarily by military considerations.
While few would disagree, getting the TPP agreement completed in a timely fashion will be contingent on various factors, including Congress granting Mr. Obama trade promotion authority or “fast track” which allows the White House to put such pacts before Congress for an up or down vote without amendments. A bipartisan deal was reportedly reached on this by top U.S. lawmakers last week, including Max Baucus who chairs the powerful Senate Finance Committee. But some say Baucus’ rumored nomination to be the next U.S. ambassador to China yesterday could complicate things since there will be no prominent Democrats in either the House or Senate to support it.
Yesterday, I was at the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington, D.C. to hear Dr. Sophal Ear talk about his acclaimed book Aid Dependence in Cambodia: How Foreign Assistance Undermines Democracy. While Dr. Ear did discuss some potential lessons the Cambodian experience had for Myanmar’s/Burma’s ongoing transformation, his talk largely focused on Cambodia itself.
As the book title suggests, Dr. Ear is quite critical of the role of foreign assistance in Cambodia. The arguments he cites are convincing though hardly new. Sustaining a country through aid rather than tax revenues extracted from the population subverts democratic processes. Aid money too often ends up in the pockets of corrupt politicians rather than in the hands of the population. And even seemingly generous donors tend to promote their own narrow interests rather than those of the recipient country.
The results, Dr. Ear says, are destructive. The Cambodian government now gets about 93 cents of foreign aid for every dollar it spends, an alarmingly high number (albeit not as high as it is in some African countries). Double-digit growth over the past few years has often not been accompanied by development, and several human development indicators have actually worsened. And the country, already notoriously corrupt, somehow managed to get an even lower ranking in Transparency International’s Corruption Perception Index this year. Meanwhile, Cambodia’s strongman prime minister Hun Sen continues to rule with an iron fist as his people clamor for a fresh election in the streets of Phnom Penh alleging irregularities.
Dr. Ear hopes that Cambodia can both reduce its reliance on foreign aid as well as distribute any aid it receives a fairer way for the benefit of its people. While some may point out that foreign aid has actually has actually had more success in Cambodia than Dr. Ear’s gloomy portrayal, few would dispute his solutions for the country.
The rub, as with most remedies of this ilk, lies in how to get there. At 60, Hun Sen continues to believe that he can maintain power through less than free and fair elections well into his 70s by delivering basic political stability and economic growth to his people which, no matter how flawed or foreign-dependent, is a vast improvement over the war and genocide of the country’s recent past. His party’s setback in the recent election and the opposition’s growing clout in the ballot box as well as on the streets shows that the Cambodian people are demanding more and that their patience is wearing thin. But whether and when this will lead to a changing of the guard and a fundamental restructuring of governance, however, is another question altogether.
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.