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More challenges await Hillary Clinton in Asia

by Simon Tay

SINGAPORE — U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is again scheduled to travel to Asia this month to meet foreign ministers at the ASEAN Regional Forum, and to visit India. On her first Asian trip in February, she provided a welcome contrast to the past with her openness to others’ views, her willingness to cooperate, and her star power. She made Asians look at America anew.

This trip will be trickier. One challenge is that part of the plot for the United States and Clinton is being written by others. North Korea will be on the agenda after its missile tests, as will Myanmar, since its generals persist in prosecuting Aung San Suu Kyi, the world’s most famous political detainee, on trivial charges.

After all that has happened in recent weeks, the definition of “success” must be set low. Nothing positive will come from the U.S. condemning these two difficult regimes unilaterally. So a key goal of Clinton’s visit must be to pull together with the Asian leaders present at the ASEAN Regional Forum.

As for Myanmar, its neighbors and fellow ASEAN members — Indonesia, Singapore, Malaysia and Thailand — are also concerned about Suu Kyi’s continued prosecution. The U.S. should begin to work with these countries not only on this matter, but also on the elections that Myanmar military junta has promised for 2010. Together, they should press for assurances of a free and fair process, with the aim of avoiding the kind of mess that followed the Iranian elections.

Indonesia can be one ally. After decades of autocracy, this vast archipelago of a country just concluded a presidential election that has solidified its transition to democracy. India, proud of its long-standing democracy and fresh from its own elections, shares a border with Myanmar and can also assist efforts there.

The approach to North Korea is similar. Kim Jong Il is a naughty boy who wants attention and incentives to behave decently. Rather than debate with her counterparts, Clinton needs to ensure that other countries in the six-party framework, especially China and South Korea, are on the same page as the U.S.

On both issues, there is little capacity to exert force or sufficient pressure for solutions any time soon. So diplomatic efforts must instead aim to join Americans and like-minded Asians in common cause, to push for steps forward in the medium to longer term.

Others must be brought on board, especially the Regional Forum hosts, ASEAN and Thailand. A moral community should form in Asia, one that displaces its leaders’ usual cynical calculations of power in order to jump on the right bandwagon.

In all this, China is the 500-kg dragon in the room. China is already closer to ASEAN and a key player with respect to Myanmar, North Korea and other sticky issues. A “bamboo” economic zone appears to be emerging, perhaps to replace today’s weakening U.S.-centric trans-Pacific ties.

This is the context for Clinton’s visit to India, as well. President George W. Bush’s administration should be credited for giving overdue recognition to India, but this was done primarily on a bilateral basis. The U.S. should now leverage that relationship to work on regional and even global issues.

Besides her own work, Clinton is likely to also be inundated during this visit with requests concerning President Barack Obama. There is still no confirmation concerning when Obama will visit Asia, though many expect that he will attend the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation Summit, to be held in Singapore in November.

China, Japan and Indonesia must be among Obama’s priorities, but many others will clamor for him to visit their capitals. Clinton and the U.S. administration would do well to decide which requests are merely photo ops and confine these to meetings at the sidelines of APEC. The U.S. should insist on a substantive agenda as a condition for any Obama visit. In China, for example, Clinton successfully established an agenda for the two countries to work together on climate change. Plans and resources now must be prepared.

Clinton has reopened the doors for Obama in Asia with charm and confidence. Obama will eventually come to Asia with many high expectations and star billing. While his charisma and openness to dialogue will be sought after, substance will also be measured and much needed. By November, after all, it will be more than a year since the global crisis began in the U.S., and Obama and his team must show tangible prospects for recovery. American leadership — globally and in Asia — can no longer be presumed. It must be earned.

Simon Tay is chairman of the Singapore Institute of International Affairs and a fellow of the Asia Society. © 2009 Project Syndicate (www.project-syndicate.org)