US Politics

Obama's Asian trip delivers firm message

In courting three of China's closest partners - Myanmar, Cambodia and Thailand - president will show US is determined to deepen ties

PUBLISHED : Friday, 16 November, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 16 November, 2012, 3:58am


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For anyone doubting Washington's determination to push ahead with its strategic "pivot" back towards Asia amid China's rise, US President Barack Obama's diplomatic offensive in Southeast Asia this weekend will make for jarring reading.

In staging the historic first visits by a serving US president to Myanmar and Cambodia, as well as stopping in Thailand to buttress one of Washington's oldest regional relationships, Obama is visiting three countries that have been among China's closer long-term partners in the region.

Staging the trip just days after winning re-election, he is also sending a clear message that the effort to deepen ties across the region will only intensify during his second term - even as he attempts to broaden engagement with China.

While all three stops are important in different ways, the Myanmar leg will, of course, hog the headlines. While some analysts and human rights activists have voiced concern at the White House's haste in dignifying Myanmar's leadership amid ongoing questions over inter-ethnic violence, Obama and his team seem determined to seize the moment to support the leadership's fledgling reforms.

The visit of his Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton a year ago marked the first visit by a senior US official in six decades and was followed by a string of moves by President Thein Sein, a former general, to deepen social, political and economic reforms.

Myanmar yesterday announced the release of a further 452 prisoners, including an unspecified number of political prisoners, in an apparent gesture ahead of Obama's visit.

"It is a surprising visit, and certainly premature perhaps, but it will send a very strong signal to reformers that their ongoing efforts will be met with support if the trends continue," said Dr Ian Storey, a Southeast Asia strategic scholar at Singapore's Institute of South East Asian Studies. "It's a masterstroke...and China will not be very happy about it."

Myanmar's reforms have been marked by moves to broaden its international relationships beyond its reliance on neighbouring China, which served as an increasingly vital trade, military and diplomatic partner during Myanmar's decades as a pariah state.

Thein Sein halted work on a massive dam in the upper reaches of the Irrawaddy River that would have supplied Yunnan with electricity.

Officially, Chinese officials say they support Myanmar's opening and diplomatic engagement.

Obama arrives in Thailand, his first stop, on Sunday. While Thailand is formally a "major non-Nato ally" of the US, Washington's attention has increasingly turned to the larger and more strategic maritime states of Indonesia and Vietnam in recent years. Thailand's domestic political turmoil has also dampened US engagement with Bangkok.

Thailand has long been China's closest friend in Southeast Asia, reflecting in part deep cultural as well as strategic links that have started flourishing in recent years, including joint military exercises.

"Given the closeness of Thai-China relations, we can really see Obama's visit as part of a US strategy to contain and manage China's rise," Storey said.

Obama and his delegation will call last on Cambodia, which is hosting the annual Asean East Asia Summit. Cambodia has moved increasingly close to China in recent years, but the US, too, has expanded its efforts to court its prime minister, Hun Sen - the region's longest serving leader.

Washington-based analyst Ernest Bower, of the non-partisan Centre for Strategic and International Studies, noted that it marked the first mission by a US president entirely focused on Southeast Asia since the Vietnam War era. "This is not a typical Asia visit for a US president … The itinerary is based on strategic intent and requires the political courage of a leader with a mandate. Obama is carving out new patterns for US engagement in Asia."