Memo to Obama: there's still time to recharge US-Asean ties

Simon Tay says face-to-face meetings would reinforce special relations

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 23 October, 2013, 9:46pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 19 April, 2017, 6:16am

Mr President, congratulations on handling the domestic crisis of the US government shutdown and debt ceiling. The problem will recur but most see you as a winner for holding your ground. Now, about that cancelled trip to Asia.

Yes, Secretary of State John Kerry filled in but, with due respect, your invitation was non-transferable. The "pivot" to Asia comes from your first term and your presence is required to show that political commitment continues to flow from the top.

I - and many others across the region - therefore re-invite you to visit, as soon as you can. Making the trip off-schedule will underline, all the more, that the region deserves special priority.

We can be ready to receive you. The Asean Summit was held earlier than usual and, from now into December, activity is winding down. No dancing girls and batik shirts, but a warm welcome is waiting.

If you come, what should you bring? No one is expecting you to bring economic presents, as did the Chinese leaders (that's more an Asian habit). Nor is anti-Chinese rhetoric necessary. Indeed, be mindful of the Philippines and Japan, your allies who are anxious about maritime disputes with China. Reassurance is good but keep it soothing. Instead, update Asians on US-China ties and the "great powers" bilateral discussion that is emerging.

You may want to call for another Asean-US Summit. Also call a special consultation about the Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement, the centrepiece of US economic engagement.

Time is ticking on the deadline - yet concerns remain that you should hear. This is especially so in Malaysia, where there is unease that the demands of the partnership will affect the Bumiputera policies of entitlements to Malays and other native-born people. Elections of the ruling party, the United Malays National Organisation, have just been held and while he did well, Premier Najib Razak must guard against a conservative backlash against reform. Meet him as the first incumbent US president to visit Malaysia since Lyndon Johnson.

For more economic impact, bring in US multinationals doing business in the region. The American private sector is revving up. Forge a pact for US investors to help the economies grow while delivering jobs to citizens, partnering local small and medium-sized enterprises where possible and greening their supply chain. Corporate America is not perfect but more credible in these aspects than many others, and such promises will fit well with concerns in large emerging markets like Myanmar and Indonesia.

Speaking of Indonesia: embrace Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, who will soon leave office. He has raised the level of your bilateral relationship and his country's presence in the world. Encourage him to continue reforms, despite the economic turbulence.

If you really cannot come, try the reverse. Convene a high-level meeting in the US and invite regional leaders to go - not to New York or some Pacific-facing city, but to some place in between where jobs and trade are also interdependent.

Most importantly, use this occasion to tell Americans that Asia is more than China and give special focus to the Association of Southeast Asian Nations.

The substance of engagement is there and needs emphasising. The government shutdown was a sign of dysfunctional politics but you prevailed. Now may be the time for some American swagger.

Simon Tay is chairman of the Singapore Institute of International Affairs and author of Asia Alone: The Dangerous Post-Crisis Divide from America. He was in the US immediately after the cancellation of Obama's trip to Asia