Highlighting the return to a neglected region

by Frank Ching

HONG KONG — U.S. President Barack Obama plans to include the prime minister of Myanmar (aka Burma), a country long shunned by Washington, when he meets this week with leaders of the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN).

While in Singapore — part of his first visit to Southeast Asia since becoming U.S. president in January — he also will attend a meeting of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) group, with the aim of confirming the new direction of U.S. foreign policy.

Obama plans to invite ASEAN leaders to Washington next year to further strengthen ties with the region, underscoring the declaration made in Thailand in July by U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton — when signing the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation with ASEAN — that the “United States is back in Southeast Asia.”

This is a region that had been somewhat neglected by the Bush administration, which focused narrowly on terrorism and told countries that they were either “with us or against us in the fight against terror.” This renewed American interest in Southeast Asia is welcome as China’s influence expands.

As Lee Kuan Yew, Singapore’s founding father and now an elder statesman, who spoke at a U.S.-ASEAN Business Council meeting in Washington, put it: “The size of China makes it impossible for the rest of Asia, including Japan and India, to match it in weight and capacity in about 20 to 30 years. “So we need America to strike a balance.”

Separately, in an American television interview, he asserted: “The 21st century will be a contest for supremacy in the Pacific because that’s where the growth will be. If you do not hold your ground in the Pacific, you cannot be a world leader.”

Washington has clearly reached a similar conclusion. It has observed Chinese influence grow in the region, especially in Burma, while the U.S. boycotted the country.

This new policy of engagement with Burma was explained by Jeffrey Bader, director of Asian affairs on the National Security Council, in recent remarks at the Brookings Institution. The policy of isolation, he said, has not “in two decades produced positive results” and so “we are now pursuing a direct diplomatic dialogue with Burma.”

Burma is only one illustration of the new U.S. policy. “Asians want us to be there for a host of reasons,” Bader said, “and we need to be there for our own reasons.

In a further allusion to Asia’s increasing importance, Bader said, “The rise of Asia in the last few decades may not have made as many headlines as other strife-torn parts of the world, but in the long run it will be more consequential.”

In his Washington speech, Lee painted a picture of a new world order in which Europe “is no longer a global strategic actor.” China, however, “will have global heft and influence.”

Lee warned that China’s military rise “will mean a high-tech PLA (army) in another two to three decades. A blue-water fleet with aircraft carriers cannot just be (intended) to deter foreign intervention in a conflict between Taiwan and the Mainland.”

Referring to territorial disputes between China and small Southeast Asian countries, including Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia and Brunei, Lee mentioned the recent dispatch by China of patrol boats to the area. “Later, behind these small patrol craft will be a blue-water navy,” he said. “The consensus in ASEAN is that the U.S. remains irreplaceable in East Asia.”

Although the U.S. has not openly cited China’s rise as a reason for its own decision to play a bigger role in Southeast Asia, the Obama trip to the region is rich in symbolism. China’s president, Hu Jintao, will also be in Singapore to attend the APEC meeting. Hu will make use of the opportunity to pay official visits to both Singapore and Malaysia.

The American and Chinese presidents, after their respective forays into Southeast Asia, will meet next week in Beijing when Obama makes his first visit to China, which has not responded officially to Lee’s remarks in Washington.

On the Internet, however, China’s citizens have been vociferous. One wrote: “Lee Kuan Yew’s comments reveal that Singapore is but a pawn of the U.S. in countering China.” Evidently, the U.S. and China, while cooperating on such issues as the global financial crisis, will be competing for influence, especially in Asia.

Frank Ching is a Hong Kong-based journalist and commentator. (Frank.ching@gmail.com)