Tue, Jul 14, 2009 - Page 9 News List

Asia wants substance from the Obama administration

US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has laid the groundwork. Now it’s up to the president to deliver on US leadership in the region

By Simon Tay

US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is scheduled to travel to Asia again this month to meet foreign ministers at the ASEAN Regional Forum, and to visit India.

On her first Asian trip in February, she provided a welcome contrast to the past with her openness to others’ views, her willingness to cooperate and her star power. She made Asians look at the US anew.

But this trip will be trickier. One challenge is that part of the plot for the US and Clinton is being written by others. North Korea will be on the agenda after conducting its missile tests, as will Myanmar, since its generals persist in prosecuting Aung San Suu Kyi, the world’s most famous political detainee, on trivial charges.

After all that has happened in recent weeks, the definition of “success” must be set low. Nothing positive will come from the US condemning these two difficult regimes unilaterally. So a key goal of Clinton’s visit must be to pull together with the Asian leaders present at the ASEAN Regional Forum.

As for Myanmar, its neighbors and fellow ASEAN members — Indonesia, Singapore, Malaysia and Thailand — are also concerned about Suu Kyi’s continued prosecution. The US should begin to work with these countries not only on this matter, but also on the elections that Myanmar military junta has promised for 2010. Together, they should press for assurances of a free and fair process, with the aim of avoiding the kind of mess that followed the Iranian elections.

Indonesia can be one ally. After decades of autocracy, this vast archipelago of a country just concluded a presidential election that has solidified its transition to democracy. India, proud of its long-standing democracy and fresh from its own elections, shares a border with Myanmar and can also assist efforts there.

The approach to North Korea is similar. Kim Jong-il is a naughty boy who wants attention and incentives to behave decently. Rather than debate with her counterparts, Clinton needs to ensure that other countries in the six-party framework, especially China and South Korea, are on the same page as the US.

On both issues, there is little capacity to exert force or sufficient pressure for solutions any time soon. So diplomatic efforts must instead aim to join Americans and like-minded Asians in common cause, to push for steps forward in the medium to longer term. Others must be brought on board, especially the Regional Forum hosts, ASEAN and Thailand.

A moral community should form in Asia, one that displaces its leaders’ usual cynical calculations of power in order to jump on the right bandwagon.

In all this, China is the 800-pound dragon in the room. China is already closer to ASEAN and a key player with respect to Myanmar, North Korea and other sticky issues. A “bamboo” economic zone appears to be emerging, perhaps to replace today’s weakening US-centric trans-Pacific ties.

This is the context for Clinton’s visit to India, as well. Former US president George W. Bush’s administration should be credited for giving overdue recognition to India, but this was done primarily on a bilateral basis. The US should now leverage that relationship to work on regional and even global issues.

Besides her own work, Clinton is likely to also be inundated during this visit with requests concerning President Barack Obama. There is still no confirmation of when Obama will visit Asia, though many expect that he will attend the APEC summit to be held in Singapore in November.

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