November 24, 2012

The importance of Obama's Asian pivot




By Nayan Chanda | Nov 24, 2012, 12.00 AM IST


As President Barack Obama ended his whirlwind media-saturated trip to Southeast Asia, skeptics wonder if the much-discussed American 'pivot to Asia' is not just a show. The fact that he had to spend a good part of his limited time with the media answering questions about Gaza demonstrated the inescapable pull of the Israeli-Arab conflict. Then, there is the worry about America`s high deficit and inevitable cut in defence spending. What can the US, with its dwindling power, do in Asia to balance a rising China, critics ask. The limits of America's power were indeed visible despite the pomp and ceremony of the presidential visit. But for all the obvious constraints faced by the US in reasserting its presence, it would be a mistake to treat the Obama policy as empty.

Right from 2009, the Obama administration has tried to refocus American attention away from Iraq and Afghanistan to the populous and fast growing Asia Pacific. After a long review of its policy options, the US decided to repair the damage to its stature caused in part by its neglect of the region. It concluded that denouncing regimes friendly to China without any carrots was counterproductive.

In October, 2009, senior State Department official Kurt Campbell travelled to isolated Burma, meeting both military leaders and Aung San Suu Kyi. In a series of quiet meetings, the foundations were laid for slowly reforming Burma with concurrent lifting of sanctions. Meanwhile, the military junta, as revealed in their secret study brought to light by journalist Bertil Lintner, had concluded on its own that having China as a diplomatic ally and economic patron threatened the country's independence. Improving relations with the US by introducing political reform would be a recommended course.

Limited parliamentary elections in 2010 and the release of political prisoners including Suu Kyi paved the way for rapprochement with Washington. Suspending a $3.6 billion Chinese hydro-electric project that was facing strong popular opposition and allowing protest against Chinese copper mining also signalled the seriousness of its intent. The visit last year by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton — and now the first ever visit by a US president along with a grant of economic aid — marks the return of the US to challenge Chinese domination.

Obama`s next stop, Cambodia, showed the seriousness of the competition for influence. Ironically, in 1984 when the current prime minister Hun Sen was the country`s foreign minister, the ministry published a book titled `Chinese Rulers` Crimes Against Kampuchea`. It elaborated Beijing`s role in propping up the murderous Khmer Rouge responsible for the death of some 1.7 million people. But thanks to China`s smart diplomacy and generous aid ($2.1 billion since 1992), growing private investment and trade, it has now emerged as the most influential presence in Cambodia. It came as no surprise that Hun Sen, as the host chairman of the ASEAN summit, cut off discussion of China`s assertive role in the South China Sea region by claiming, falsely, that southeast Asian countries had reached a "consensus" that they would not "internationalise" the South China Sea issue.

Ever since 2010 when Hillary Clinton asserted US interest in a peaceful resolution of the South China Sea dispute, an angry Beijing has sought to exclude the US from any discussion on the issue. Cambodia also chafes at strong criticism of its human rights record from Washington, some of which was delivered personally by a stern Obama in a private meeting that officials described as "tense". Yet, to keep a foot in the door, the US defence department has initiated a counter-terrorism training programme in Cambodia. It also has $70 million worth of aid programmes in health, education, governance, and economic growth. Given the growing popular anger at official corruption and the brutality of the regime in Cambodia, the US bets that in the long run, keeping pressure on Phnom Penh may bring benefit.

The enduring impact of American democracy's soft power was visible in Rangoon with tens of thousands of ecstatic Burmese greeting Obama. A carefully balanced policy that reasserts US interest in the region without forcing the people there into a choice of "with us or against us" will, in the long run, create a balance that would have been impossible had Washington turned its back on Asia.

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