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Making do without Obama

by Simon Tay

Special To The Japan Times

More attention has been given to U.S. President Barack Obama’s late decision to cancel his trip to Asia than to what the region did without him.

This is testimony to America’s enduring power and the president’s prestige. Focus intensified also because of the circumstances that triggered the cancellation — dysfunctional Beltway politics that brought the world’s largest economy to the edge of default.

Continuing market concerns about the debt ceiling crisis may validate the decision to prioritize domestic concerns. But that does not mean — as some in America think — that the cancellation exacted little cost or that Asians did not move ahead on their own agenda.

China received much attention, but it is wrong to see Beijing’s gains as coming at America’s expense. The new Chinese leadership always planned to make an early and strong impression across the region.

Visiting Malaysia and Indonesia, President Xi Jinping promised to accelerate trade and investment — very welcome as growth is slowing. In Jakarta, he became the first foreign leader to address Parliament of the region’s largest democracy, and he authorized provision of a safety net for the weakening rupiah with a currency swap worth some $16 billion.

Attending the wider summits, Premier Li Keqiang set a new context for ties with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. China now aims to make the South China Sea a “sea of peace” and calm the disputes that have bedeviled relations.

No claims were retracted, but concrete next steps were identified to establish communication hotlines, search and rescue cooperation, and an informal dialogue among defense ministers.

Beijing will upgrade the free trade agreement with ASEAN with ambitious trade and investment targets. The Philippines — vocal disputants over maritime issues — will not be pacified. But as they were with others, the Chinese efforts can be persuasive.

While the ASEAN hosts themselves made fewer headlines, this was largely because its journey toward becoming a community by 2015 remains on track, notwithstanding challenges to deeper economic integration. Some initiatives do bear special notice.

One is the ASEAN Infrastructure Fund that will soon commence lending. While this begins with only $1 billion, the fund — supported by the Asian Development Bank — can gather momentum to support connectivity needs.

Another initiative is the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership to tie together ASEAN’s free-trade agreements — from Japan to India down to New Zealand. The first RCEP Ministerial Meeting was held in Brunei this year and the effort — which excludes the United States — bears watching in relation to the Obama-endorsed Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP).

A third notable decision taken by ASEAN was the adoption of the Sub-Regional Haze Monitoring System, normally the domain of environment ministers. The fact that leaders signed off on it shows the escalating concern over fires in Indonesia that this year impacted not just local communities but also Singapore and Malaysia. This demonstrates that Asians are addressing even sensitive issues of sovereignty.

These were just some of the items on ASEAN’s long agenda. Each may not rank as urgent or earth-shattering, but taken together, they add up to an important signal: Asian regionalism is thickening to develop detailed and real measures.

Obama’s absence did not derail this. It only the raised issues of whether the Americans want to participate, or will just become an occasional if honored visitor.

Back in 1998, amidst the Asian crisis, another American president skipped a visit to the region. While President Bill Clinton, and later President George W. Bush, did subsequently visit key countries in the region, that incident sparked the sense that Asia should deepen intraregional cooperation. The first-ever summit among East Asians was held, and over the next decade, China’s influence and ties grew.

This “Asia alone” regionalism has grown and the pivot policy, whatever the criticisms, re-emphasized America’s continuing relevance to an interdependent Asia-Pacific framework. The question now is whether Americans feel the need to put the pivot policy back on track.

If so, they need not turn up with goodies as China did. A relaunch of American charm and presence could start with nice speeches and a rescheduling of a summit with ASEAN. More difficult but notable would be for the Americans to balance their TPP negotiating tactics and allow Asian partners to feel more like partners.

A platform on the future of U.S.-ASEAN relations — perhaps either eminent persons or civil society groups — may also be a good way to broaden dialogue.

That may not seem a lot but would serve as a start. When it comes to ASEAN relations, a little goes quite a ways.

Most Asians did miss Obama, but if nothing is done, the future question is whether, in a decade, Asians will still care as much about the absence — or presence — of the American president.