By Simon Tay
Originally published in Guardian.co.uk, November 2, 2009
This is the season for Asian gatherings. The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) summit in Thailand at the end of October brought all the key players of Asia together. Come mid-November, almost all of them will meet again in Singapore at the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit, which will include other Pacific leaders, plus the US president, Barack Obama.
Summits are a circus with many rings and acronyms. At the ASEAN summit, the 10 Southeast Asian leaders met counterparts from China, Japan, and South Korea. These 13 countries then met again with India, Australia, and New Zealand.
Some 42 agreements were reportedly penned at the meeting, on issues ranging from outstanding trade and economic matters to the launch of a human rights commission. Not bad for a summit that some feared would not happen at all: an earlier meeting planned for April in Bangkok had been disrupted by protesters – "red shirts" who support ousted Thai premier Thaksin Shinawatra.
As for Obama, he will first visit Japan, and, while at APEC, will also attend the first US-ASEAN Summit. Afterwards, he will go to China and South Korea. What additional dimension might America's president bring on his first visit to the region?
Obama is still fighting back home for his healthcare initiative, and is hamstrung from acting on climate change in time for the Copenhagen summit, which is to agree on a successor treaty to the Kyoto Protocol. So there is a risk that he will come to Asia for just a star turn and photo opportunities while reserving his strength for other battles. But more is needed and should be expected of him.
Starting with Japan, Obama needs to ensure a good working relationship with Yukio Hatoyama, the new premier. Japan has voiced support for an east Asian community that includes India, Australia, and New Zealand, while the Chinese and others question widening the circle. The US should welcome the Japanese initiative and engage with Asia as a whole. Keeping Japan close is a starting point.
Moving onto ASEAN, much attention will be on how Obama interacts with Myanmar's leader, who will also be present. Obama should stand for democracy and help push for a clean vote in the elections that the junta has promised for 2010.
But there are other, broader opportunities. ASEAN has been the hub for Asian regionalism, but some in Australia have proposed focusing only on the larger countries. Southeast Asians have a renewed openness towards American leadership, and meaningful initiatives can be started that would resonate with regional aspirations.
One such initiative is for freer trade. While the US has stood on the sidelines, intra-Asian agreements have run ahead. US Senator Richard Lugar has floated the idea of a free-trade agreement between the US and ASEAN. But, with Myanmar included, this may be too difficult politically, and an Asean sub-grouping may be more realistic.
Another option is for the US to press for a Trans-Pacific partnership. This was proposed late in the Bush administration in order to forge links with some ASEAN members – Singapore, Vietnam, and Brunei – as well as others across the Pacific. This could be built up to include other open south-east Asian economies – Malaysia and Thailand – with the eventual aim being an APEC-wide agreement, which would be an impressive achievement if realised by the end of 2011, when it will be Obama's turn to play host to all the leaders.
In this time of crisis and unemployment, the American public may question freer trade. But more and more American businesses realise that still-growing Asian markets are vital for their future profits and overall economic recovery.
Most economic frameworks are among Asians only, but an American initiative could trump them and ensure that the region remains open and engaged with the US. It could also help lessen the tendency of some governments to gravitate ever closer towards the booming Chinese economy.
Of course, when Obama arrives in Beijing, he must continue to strengthen co-operation with China. On the economic crisis, climate change, and many other global issues, China and the US are potentially the decisive actors. But the US must also engage in a more multilateral way to include south-east Asia's smaller countries. China has been charming them over the past decade, and the US must offer an attractive alternative.
To cynics, APEC is a talking shop, while ASEAN is an arena for an ongoing contest between China and Japan, with India on the side. But, despite the rivalries and all the chatter, it is clear that Asians are coming closer together. And, while Asian regionalism is messy and rife with tensions and flash points, the US has been the stabilising power in the region.
Obama has the opportunity to ensure that the region continues to see the US as the essential actor – now more open and helpful than before. If he achieves this, Obama's long trip will be valuable for Americans, and Asians will realise that it was worth waiting for him.
Simon Tay is Chairman of the Singapore Institute of International Affairs and a Fellow at the Asia Society.
Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2009