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What Asians did without Obama

More attention was given to United States 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.

Chinese President Xi Jinping with Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak in Putrajaya last Friday. Mr Xi promised to accelerate trade and investment during his visit. Photo: Reuters

Chinese President Xi Jinping with Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak in Putrajaya last Friday. Mr Xi promised to accelerate trade and investment during his visit. Photo: Reuters

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More attention was given to United States 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 has brought the world’s largest economy to the edge of default.

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

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

Visiting Malaysia and Indonesia, Chinese President Xi Jinping promised to accelerate trade and investment — much welcomed as growth is slowing. In Jakarta, he became the first foreign leader to address parliament in the region’s largest democracy and also provided a safety net for the weakening rupiah with a currency swap worth some US$16 billion (S$20 billion).

Attending the wider summits, Premier Li Keqiang set a new context for ties with ASEAN. China now aims to make the South China Sea a “sea of peace” and calm the disputes that have bedevilled relations. No claims were retracted, but concrete next steps identified are to establish communication hotlines, search and rescue cooperation, and an informal dialogue amongst defence ministers.

Beijing will also 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 with others, these Chinese efforts can be persuasive.

ASEAN MOVES BEAR WATCHING

While host ASEAN itself made fewer headlines, this was largely because its journey towards 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 US$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 (RCEP) to tie together ASEAN’s free-trade agreements, from Japan to India, and down to New Zealand.

The first RCEP Ministerial Meeting was held in Brunei this year and the effort, which excludes the US, 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 shows escalating concern over fires in Indonesia that this year severely impacted not just local communities, but also Singapore and Malaysia. This demonstrates that even sensitive issues of sovereignty are being addressed among Asians.

These are just some of the long list of items on ASEAN’s agenda and 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.

‘ASIA ALONE’ REGIONALISM

Mr Obama’s absence did not derail this. It only raises issues about whether the Americans want and can be present to participate, or if it will just become an occasional if honoured visitor.

Back in 1998, amidst the Asian crisis, another US President skipped a visit to the region. While Presidents Bill Clinton and then George W Bush did subsequently visit key countries in the region, that incident sparked the sense that Asia should deepen regional cooperation amongst themselves, excluding America.

Following that, the first summit among East Asians was held and, over the next decade, China’s influence and ties grew exponentially.

This “Asia alone” regionalism has grown and the pivot policy, whatever the criticisms, re-emphasised 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 re-launch of American charm and presence could start with nice speeches and rescheduling the summit with ASEAN.

More difficult, but notable would be for American negotiating tactics on the TPP agreement to be balanced, to allow Asian partners to feel more like partners.

A platform on the future of US-ASEAN relations — perhaps an eminent persons group or among 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 some way.

The fact today is that most Asians did miss Mr Obama. But if nothing is done, the question is whether, in a decade, Asians will still care as much about the absence — or presence — of the American President then.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR:

Simon Tay is chairman of the Singapore Institute of International Affairs and author of “Asia Alone: The Dangerous Post Crisis Divide from America”

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