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Asians to see if Obama was worth the wait

by Simon Tay

SINGAPORE — Come the middle of this month, almost all the key players of Asia will meet in Singapore at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit, which will include other Pacific leaders plus U.S. President Barack Obama.

At the ASEAN summit in late October in Thailand, 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 start 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 Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra.

As for Obama, he will visit Japan first and, while at APEC, will attend the first U.S.-ASEAN Summit. He will then 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 health care initiative, and is hamstrung from acting on climate change in time for December’s Copenhagen summit, which is supposed to forge a successor treaty to the Kyoto Protocol. So there is a risk that he will come to Asia just for photo opportunities while reserving his strength for other battles. But more is needed from him.

For starters, in Japan, Obama needs to ensure a good working relationship with Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama. Japan has voiced support for an East Asia community that includes India, Australia and New Zealand, while China and others question the point in widening the circle. The U.S. should welcome the Japanese initiative and try to engage with Asia as a whole.

Much attention will be on how Obama interacts with the leader of Myanmar (aka Burma). Obama should stand up for democracy and help push for a clean vote in the elections that the junta has promised for 2010.

There are other, broader opportunities. ASEAN has been the hub of Asian regionalism, but some in Australia have proposed focusing only on the larger countries. Southeast Asians have shown a renewed openness toward American leadership, and Obama has a chance to propose meaningful initiatives that would resonate regionally.

One such initiative is for freer trade. While the U.S. has stood on the sidelines, intra-Asia agreements have run ahead. U.S. Sen. Richard Lugar has floated the idea of a free-trade agreement between the U.S. and ASEAN. The inclusion of Myanmar, though, may be too difficult politically; an ASEAN subgrouping may be more realistic.

Another option is for the U.S. to press for a Trans-Pacific Partnership. This was proposed late in the Bush administration in order to forge links with ASEAN members Singapore, Vietnam and Brunei as well as with others across the Pacific. This could be built up to include other open Southeast Asian economies, such as Malaysia and Thailand, with the eventual aim being an APEC-wide agreement.

Such an achievement would be impressive if realized 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 the benefits of freer trade. But more and more American businesses realize that still-growing Asian markets are vital for future profits and their overall economic recovery.

Most economic frameworks exist among Asians only, but an American initiative could trump them and ensure that the region remains open and engaged with the U.S. It could also help lessen the tendency of some governments to gravitate ever closer toward the booming Chinese economy.

Of course, when Obama arrives in Beijing, he must continue to strengthen the idea of cooperation. On the economic crisis, climate change and many other global issues, China and the U.S. are potentially the decisive actors.

The U.S. must also engage more with Southeast Asia’s smaller countries. China has been charming them over the past decade and the U.S. must offer an attractive alternative.

To cynics, APEC is a talk shop, while ASEAN is an arena for continuing a contest between China and Japan, with India on the sidelines. Despite the rivalries and all the chatter, it is clear that Asians are coming closer together. While Asian regionalism is messy and rife with tensions and flash points, the U.S. has been the stabilizing power in the region.

Obama has the opportunity to ensure that the region continues to see the U.S. as an essential actor that is now more open and helpful than before. If he achieves this, Obama’s long trip will prove valuable for Americans, and Asians will see that he was worth waiting for.

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