Fresh on the heels of the reelection of US President Barack Obama, the White House announced that he would visit Burma (Myanmar) as his first foreign policy initiative at the start of a three-leg tour of Southeast Asia that covers Thailand and Cambodia on November 17-20.
The itinerary excluded the Philippines, a longtime strategic security ally of the United States in the Asia-Pacific region.
The exclusion ruffled sensitive nationalist feelings in Manila, as officials anxiously waited for signals from the second Obama administration on what is in store for the Philippines in the reordering of US foreign policy priorities following the election.
The question that immediately emerged was: Why Burma, Thailand and Cambodia? These countries in Southeast Asia are the least threatened by the aggressive pursuit by China of its hegemonic claim of disputed territories in the West Philippine Sea (South China Sea), which are also claimed by the Philippines, Vietnam, Brunei, Malaysia and Taiwan.
The Philippines, Vietnam and Japan (in East Asia) had been in the centre of rising tensions from these contending claims before the elections.
Filipinos were quick to recall that during Obama’s first Southeast Asian tour early in his first term, his itinerary bypassed the Philippines.
As if to rub salt in the wound, White House officials revealed that Obama returned the calls of a long list of global leaders, including those of Israel and Egypt, who contacted him to congratulate him on his reelection.
The US president spoke to the leaders of Germany, France, Britain, Saudi Arabia, Australia, Canada, India, Turkey, Brazil, Colombia and Nato’s secretary general.
No call from Obama
The Palace said it had not received calls from the Obama White House, but it emphasised that President Aquino did not call President Obama and instead sent a congratulatory message by mail through the Department of Foreign Affairs.
Aquino on Wednesday wrote that he “looked forward to a deeper cooperation” with the United States in Obama’s second term.
Presidential spokesperson Edwin Lacierda told reporters that Aquino did not call Obama because the latter “was probably getting too many phone calls.” Lacierda added, “I think the letter is sufficient.”
According to BBC news, Obama’s Burma stop is part of the trip built around the summit of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations in Cambodia, which leaders from China, Japan and Russia will also attend.
Obama will meet Burma’s President Thein Sein and opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi.
White House spokesperson Jay Carney said President Obama intended to “speak to civil society to encourage Burma’s ongoing democratic transition.”
The government of Burma has been implementing economic, political and other reforms, a process that the Obama administration has sought to encourage, according to BBC.
The trip “reflects the importance that the US has placed in normalising relations with Burma. The process has moved forward relatively swiftly … and it represents an opportunity for the United States to have a greater stake in the region and so at least counter the dominant influence of China,” BBC said.
A Burmese government spokesperson said the “support and encouragement of the US president … will strengthen the commitment of President Thein Sein’s reform process to move forward without backtracking”.
Reforms have been taking place in Burma since elections in November 2010 saw military rule replaced with a military-backed nominally civilian government, BBC said. Since then, many political prisoners have been freed and censorship relaxed.
The opposition party led by Suu Kyi, who was released from house arrest after the elections, has rejoined the political process after boycotting the 2010 elections. It now has a small presence in parliament after the April by-elections.
Shedding light on the shifting foreign policy priorities of the second Obama administration, The New York Times, in an analysis, wrote that “for reasons of history and political reality, a reelected Mr. Obama is likely to devote more time to foreign affairs. From Richard Nixon to Bill Clinton, presidents have tended to make their bid for statesman status in their second terms. The prospect of continuing gridlock—with the Republicans still controlling the House—gives Mr. Obama all the more reason to favour diplomacy over domestic legislation”.
New maritime power
Along the same vein, the Asian Wall Street Journal (AWSJ) wrote that Obama’s reelection would provide him with little time to celebrate in the face of an array of global problems that include challenges posed by Iran’s nuclear programme and widening political instability in the Middle East.
Behind these front-burner problems, AWSJ said, Obama in his second term, “likely will have to redefine US policies toward China, in light of its growing economic might and military power. The president is expected to face renewed challenge from Beijing over continued arms sales to Taiwan … And many Asian officials fear that the dispute between Japan and China over an atoll in the East China Sea could escalate further, forcing Washington—Tokyo’s treaty ally—to a larger role.”
The AWSJ said: “The Obama administration over the past year has been touting its intention to tilt Washington’s strategic focus from the Middle East and toward Asia, due to the region’s economic growth and China’s increasing power.”
The Philippines’ anxieties over China’s policies on the territorial disputes in the West Philippine Sea rose as the Chinese Communist Party began its leadership change at its party congress that followed the US elections.
Agence France-Presse reported from Beijing that the speech of outgoing Chinese President Hu Jintao at the party congress referring to the territorial disputes in the South China Sea has raised concerns among Asian countries that have supported the Obama administration’s policy to “pivot” to the region as it disentangles from wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Addressing the opening of the Communist Party’s 18th National Congress, Hu indicated that China would continue its disputed claims to maritime territories.
He said, “We should enhance our capacity for exploiting maritime resources, resolutely safeguard China’s maritime rights and interests and build China into a maritime power.”
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