US is back in Asia, says Clinton

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 23 July, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 23 July, 2009, 12:00am

US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton's statement to the region yesterday that 'the United States is back' may have more than a touch of hype about it - yet it is still underpinned by strategic trends under way across Southeast Asia.

With Beijing having improved ties one by one with every Southeast Asian nation over the last decade or so, Washington senses the time is right to 'rebalance', and is quietly courting new friendships and wooing old allies anew.

Mrs Clinton's presence at the annual meeting of the notoriously limp Asean is merely one sign of such developments.

If the trend was apparent during the waning years of George W. Bush's presidency, it is picking up momentum under President Barack Obama.

Long-established ties with Indonesia, Thailand and Malaysia are being burnished, while relations with Vietnam, formerly a bitter enemy, are noticeably warming.

Washington is also reviewing its approach to the recalcitrant generals running Myanmar and is seeking to work more closely with the region to force change in Southeast Asia's most unpalatable regime. Collectively, too, the US is trying to stay on board, finally moving to sign the Association of Southeast Asian Nations' Treaty of Amity and Co-operation - a commitment to helping to peacefully solve regional disputes.

'The message we are getting from the region is that the time is right,' one Obama administration official said. 'No one is wanting to turn away from China, but we are getting the strong sense that they want to rebalance.

'They know the US remains important long term and are reaching out ... and we are trying to make sure we are responsive. It is an opportunity we cannot miss.'

Talk privately with veteran Southeast Asian diplomats and the sentiment is echoed. In a multilateral world it is important to rub along with all regional powers, particularly China and the US, the thinking goes. Any relationship with an emerging new power, such as China, must be balanced with a traditional source of strength, the US.

'For a stable region in the future, we are going to need both ... and I think the two big guys understand that,' one Thai envoy said.

Others are blunter, however, suggesting China risks overplaying its hand after a decade of goodwill. Beijing's recent confirmation of its sweeping claims in the South China Sea is one such example.

US engagement in the region is highly nuanced given its political and cultural diversity.

The relationship with Indonesia - a surprising democratic success story - is one certain to garner considerable attention in the latter half of the year. Washington is keen to trumpet its virtues as not only the world's most populous Muslim country, but among the most moderate and one that has successfully tackled terrorism. The last part of that script is obviously being rewritten in the wake of last week's Jakarta bombings.

Then there is the unique leverage of Mr Obama, who spent part of his childhood in Jakarta and is arguably the most popular politician in the country as a result.

Mr Obama does not want to neglect neighbouring Malaysia either. He highlighted its role as a leading voice of relative Islamic tolerance in his recent Cairo speech to the Muslim world.

Less visible but equally striking is Vietnam's fledgling military relationship with the United States. In April, Vietnamese military officials gathered at Ho Chi Minh City's Tan Son Nhut airport - once a symbol of America's conflict with Hanoi - and were flown out to a US aircraft carrier.

And just last week, Washington's Asean envoy, Scott Marciel, made the unusual move of expressing concern about regional tensions in the South China Sea, home to an expanding Chinese submarine fleet. He specifically mentioned China's warnings to US oil firms engaged in legal exploration deals with Vietnam.

'For many years, we've been pushing them, and frankly they haven't been that responsive,' one Pentagon official said of his Vietnamese counterparts. 'Now they are taking the lead. They want to lift the level of exchanges.'

Then there is Thailand. The old certainties that have guided life in one of the region's freest, most democratic nations are ending as the revered monarch, King Bhumibol Adulyadej, enters the twilight of his long reign. Beijing also has old and deep ties with Bangkok's elite.

Both Beijing and Washington are eyeing each other warily over Thailand and Mrs Clinton will be seeking to shore up the US position during her stay in Thailand this week.

While she may be saying publicly that the US is back, more quietly, Washington's diplomats are trying to show that they never really left.