America must work for its place in Asia

Simon Tay says Obama no-show did not stop region getting things done

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 17 October, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 17 October, 2013, 2:02am

More attention was given to US 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 its president's prestige.

What China did, however, received much attention though 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.

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 bedevilled relations. Beijing will also upgrade the free-trade agreement with Asean, with ambitious trade and investment targets. The Philippines - a vocal disputant over maritime issues - will not be pacified. But with others, these Chinese efforts can be persuasive.

While Asean itself made fewer headlines, this was largely because its journey towards becoming a community by 2015 remains on track. But some initiatives do deserve attention.

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 to tie together Asean's free-trade agreements, from Japan to India, and down to New Zealand. The first ministerial meeting of the partnership was held in Brunei this year and the effort - which excludes the US - bears watching in relation to the Obama-endorsed Trans-Pacific Partnership.

A third notable decision taken by Asean was the adoption of the Sub-Regional Haze Monitoring System. This issue is normally the domain of environment ministers, but the fact that leaders signed off on it shows escalating concern over fires in Indonesia that this year affected not just local people but also Singapore and Malaysia. This shows that even sensitive issues of sovereignty are being addressed among Asians.

Taken together, the list on Asean's agenda adds up to an important signal: Asian regionalism is thickening to develop real measures.

Obama's absence did not derail this. It only raises issues about whether the Americans want to participate or will just become an occasional visitor.

Back in 1998, amid the Asian crisis, another US president skipped a visit to the region. That sparked a sense that Asia should deepen regional co-operation. Following that, the first ever summit among East Asians was held and, over the next decade, China's influence and ties grew exponentially.

This "Asia alone" regionalism has grown. The question now is whether the US feels the need to put its "pivot" policy back on track. If so, a relaunch of American charm and presence could start with nice speeches and rescheduling the summit with Asean. More difficult would be for US negotiating tactics on the Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement to be balanced to allow Asian nations to feel more like partners.

When it comes to Asean relations, a little goes quite a long way. The fact is that 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 a US president.

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