Nov 17, 2012

Singapore - New chapter in Obama's Asia pivot

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President Barack Obama's upcoming trip to Southeast Asia marks the beginning of a new phase in the United States' strategic "pivot" towards the Asia-Pacific, senior administration officials said yesterday.

This will mean increased efforts to strengthen alliances, deepen engagement with regional institutions and promote democracy and human rights - elements which will feature prominently in Obama's visit to Thailand, Myanmar and Cambodia beginning Sunday.

"It is telling that Asia will be the first trip that the President makes since his re-election (last week)," US National Security Adviser Tom Donilon told a forum here on Thursday.

"It sends a powerful statement that the Asia-Pacific will continue to be a strategic priority in his second term, as it was in his first term."

The Obama administration began its outreach to the region within weeks of assuming power in 2009, dispatching top diplomat Hillary Clinton to Asia on her inaugural trip. But the pivot, or "strategic rebalancing" towards the region as most officials prefer to call it, was not formally introduced until late last year.

The region welcomed Washington's decision to shift resources and attention away from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan towards the Asia-Pacific, but was unsure if the nascent policy would survive the presidential election.

Obama won a second term last Tuesday after defeating his Republican rival Mitt Romney, and looks set to make his Asia policy a major part of his legacy.

One of Obama's top foreign policy advisers, Ben Rhodes, said in a conference call on Thursday: "Continuing to fill in our pivot to Asia will be a critical part of the President's second term and, ultimately, his foreign policy legacy.

"We see this as an opportunity to dramatically increase US exports, to increase US leadership in the fastest-growing part of the world and in advancing our values and interests, which this trip is designed to do."

In Thailand, where Obama begins his fifth visit to Asia in four years, the President aims to shore up ties with America's oldest ally in South-east Asia. He will have an audience with the Thai King and hold a bilateral meeting with Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra.

In Myanmar, US officials said Obama is looking to further encourage the political reforms which have swept the Southeast Asian country since last year. He will also hold meetings with President Thein Sein as well as opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi.

He will cap his visit in Cambodia, where he will hold talks with Asean leaders and attend the annual East Asia Summit (EAS) which Phnom Penh is hosting this year. He will meet outgoing Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao and Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda.

The decision to commit to the EAS meetings came after some debate in the White House, said Donilon, adding: "We reached the decision this way: You are either all in or you're not with respect to this strategy. And the President said the United States is all in.

"You can either look at these institutions and wait for them to perfect themselves, or you can participate on the ground and help these institutions achieve (their) goals."

There have been criticisms, however, that the US pivot strategy and its renewed engagement in the region are aimed at keeping China in check. Senior US officials refuted those assertions yesterday, maintaining that its broad interests in the region go beyond areas of competition with China.

"US policy in Asia is about US interests. It's not about China," said Danny Russel, senior director for Asia at the National Security Council.

"Our objective is to shape the environment in the Asia-Pacific region in which the peaceful rise of important countries, including China, contributes to the common good, is fundamentally stabilising and not destabilising, and in which every party can contribute to the work at hand."

Chua Chin Hon

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