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ASEAN goes missing from Obama’s speech

by and

In his seventh and last State of the Union speech this past week, U.S. President Barack Obama asked Americans to ponder the economic and security challenges the United States is facing.

The U.S. president was decidedly upbeat. Americans though may well have had reason to pause. The December shootings in San Bernardino, California, just weeks earlier, became the worst terrorist attack to occur in the U.S. since Sept. 11, 2001. And the latest Rasmussen Reports survey had 67 percent of Americans now saying their country is headed in the wrong direction.

Yet, Obama declared, “I stand here confident as I have ever been that the State of our Union is strong.” And relative to much of the world, the U.S. economy remains so.

Unfortunately, an important message and geography lesson went missing amid the rhetoric. It was an opportunity missed for an administration that has added the phrase “Asia pivot” to the geopolitical conversation. That’s shorthand for a rebalance of U.S. attention away from conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Americans could well have benefited from Obama’s taking a moment to underscore how strengthened trade and security relations with the dynamic economies of Southeast Asia will help the U.S. meet economic and security challenges.

In his address to the U.S. Congress, Obama mentioned China specifically and Asia broadly, as he has in past years. Yet, while Myanmar and the Philippines have been mentioned in prior addresses, Southeast Asia as a region has never caught the full attention of the presidential speechwriters’ final drafts.

The region may well have expected a shout-out from a president who spent part of his childhood in Indonesia — Southeast Asia’s most populous country and largest economy.

Obama did mention Vietnam in his final remarks, but it was to remind Americans of their nation’s difficult wartime legacy in that country. He looked to Southeast Asia’s past not its dynamic future. “We … can’t try to take over and rebuild every country that falls into crisis, even if it’s done with the best of intentions,” Obama said.

“That’s not leadership; that’s a recipe for quagmire, spilling American blood and treasure that ultimately will weaken us. It’s the lesson of Vietnam.”

How many in the U.S. would be surprised to know that this one-time enemy is now a significant American trading partner — and one seeking closer U.S. ties amid China’s increasing assertiveness in the South China Sea.

Few likely also know that Thailand is the oldest treaty ally of the U.S. in Asia, by virtue of a Treaty of Amity and Cooperation signed in 1833. And Singapore remains a strong security partner of the U.S.

Americans would have benefited from knowing that Obama — described by some as America’s first “Pacific President” — had invited Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung along with leaders of nine other Southeast Asian nations, collectively known as ASEAN, to a summit in California later this February.

Americans would also benefit from learning more of how a recently upgraded, and largely welcomed U.S. “strategic partnership” with nations in the region can lead to greater cooperation on economic and security issues.

Already, there is more U.S. investment in the 10 member-nations of ASEAN than in all the “BRIC” nations of Brazil, Russia, India and China, according to the U.S.-ASEAN Business Council.

The U.S. may well be striving to “remake” an international system to ensure greater economic and military security. That new system must engage and include the nations of Southeast Asia — which were described by Obama as being “critical to security, prosperity and human dignity around the world” last November at a U.S.-ASEAN meeting held in Kuala Lumpur.

The mutual benefits and opportunities of U.S.-Southeast Asian partnership will become even more apparent to individuals and businesses in the near future as the just launched ASEAN Economic Community gains momentum. This market of some 600 million people and combined gross domestic product of $ 2.5 trillion deserved a mention by the U.S. president.

Understandably, the U.S. president’s attention turned to the just concluded Trans-Pacific Partnership trade talks as an example of American leadership in Asia. The TPP trade initiative, if implemented would increase American exports by 9.2 percent, according to the World Bank. It does not, however, include all members of the Southeast Asia region.

“With TPP, China does not set the rules in that region; we do,” said Obama in calling on the U.S. Congress to approve the landmark trade deal. “You want to show our strength in this new century? Approve this agreement.”

The U.S. president’s final State of the Union address captured an overly cautious approach to Asia amid a rising China. Much of the region, including in Southeast Asia, hungers for a return of strong U.S. leadership.

Our hope is that one year from now, the new president — whoever he or she might be — will make clear that America remains staunchly a Pacific economic and military power, and a force for democracy, human rights and good governance.

The 21st century may well be an Asia-Pacific Century. Yet, the state of the U.S. union is that America remains an Asia-Pacific power, and with attention, investment and involvement, it will remain so to the betterment of Southeast Asia, the broader region and world. That’s a tale worth telling.

Curtis S. Chin served as the 15th U.S. ambassador to the Asian Development Bank, based in Manila. He is currently managing director of advisory firm RiverPeak Group, LLC. Jose B. Collazo, a Southeast Asian analyst, is an associate with RiverPeak Group. Follow them on Twitter at @CurtisSChin and @JoseBCollazo