Nov 5, 2012

Thailand - 10 reasons Asean prefers Obama as president

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Tomorrow the international community will find out who is the choice of the American voters. For Asean, it is crystal clear the incumbent is the one. Here are 10 reasons for choosing Barack Obama.

1. In general, the Asean leaders want Obama to return as president so he can take part in the upcoming East Asia Summit (EAS), which will be held two weeks later in Phnom Penh. The seventh EAS will be one of the most important meetings between the leaders of Asean and the world's most powerful countries including the US, Russia, China and India as each country is undergoing substantive changes dictated by their own domestic and external dynamics. To Asean, Obama represents a continuity of US commitment to Asia.

2. If the presidential challenger, Mitt Romney wins the race, he would have no reason to travel to Southeast Asia at any future date. His first task would be to consolidate his new administrative team as well as reshape the US foreign policy towards the Middle East, focusing on Israel and Iran. If Asia matters, it is about China and Japan. Asean will be very low on the list.

3. The Asean chair, Cambodia, was so excited that the spokesman of Foreign Ministry in Phnom Penh announced on Tuesday that Obama has confirmed that he would visit Cambodia and attend the EAS. It is a clear indication that the White House is confident of his victory in the presidential race tomorrow. After the July's hiccup for failure to issue the joint communiqué as the end of Asean annual meeting, Cambodia wants badly to demonstrate it has a neutral foreign policy towards major powers, especially towards the US and China.

4. Both Myanmar and Thailand are anxious to find out if Obama would confirm stopovers in their capitals during the trip to and from Phnom Penh. Advance security teams from the US have already visited these countries to prepare grounds for his surprised visits ahead of the EAS. The trip to three Asean members are historic , especially for Myanmar. The recent reforms in the former rouge state has won praises in the world over so much that Obama just cannot ignore. Indeed, the US-Myanmar relations are on a roller coaster. For him to come this far with visits to Cambodia and Myanmar without touching on a tarmac in Thailand, a long standing US ally, would be utterly impossible. To reinforce the pivotal role of Thailand, US Defense Secretary Leon Penetta is scheduled to stop over in Bangkok before heading for Siem Riem on15 November and US State Secretary Hilary Clinton will also visit Bangkok two days on her way to Phnom Penh before her tenure ends.

5. If there is any US president that is knowledgeable and appreciative of Asean, it is Obama. Over the past four years, Obama has developed closed rapports with a high level of comfort with most of the Asean leaders. In fact, Asean is thinking of scheduling another round of leaders' meeting in the future with the incumbent US president. They have met a few times previously with Obama - their encounters produced substantive results. After all, they gave him the confidence to deal with the Asean leaders. It is not wrong to say that Obama helps define and sustain the US role in the relations with Asean.

6. The US rebalancing policy has won accolades among the Asean leaders. With the incumbent at the White House, the policy will enter the second phase with intensified US engagements with the Asean members in all areas. Obama's scheduled visit to Myanmar after the EAS and its invitation to Naypyidaw to be an observer in the Cobra Gold next year is a clear indication of Washington's intention to augment its security cooperation with all the Asean members. This will be a new security toolbox for the region. With stronger US presence and commitment, Washington-initiated Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) is gaining grounds as additional Asean members would like to enter TPP negotiation process. Thailand would be one among them. Again, Obama's challenger would not focus on Asia as a whole, even though his predecessor the former President George W Bush did make efforts to formulated distinctive diplomacy toward Asia and Asean particularly on his second term.

7. Asean wants a US president with a practical foreign policy towards China. Proximity with the world's second largest economy does provide both comfort and stress for Asean. The US as a balancing force is situated in the other part of the world. In the past when China was poor and underdeveloped, it did not post any threat. Now, Asean is learning how to cope anew with the world's second largest economy that is standing tall and proud of its achievements. The Obama Administration's policy towards China is both competitive and collaborative which augurs well with the Asean approach to the two super dialogue partners. Asean will benefit from balanced approaches providing sufficient rooms for them to engage and secure influence in ways that would increase the regional profile, not dampening it.

8. Asean prefers the US leader who does not treat Russia as an enemy either as it would have direct impacts on the overall regional peace and stability. Russia under the third-time President Vladimir Putin is returning to the region, in particular the former Indochina, where the former Soviet Union used to reign. Moscow wants closer cooperation with Asean and is willing to do more to harness their relations. Visits to Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia, one still can come across remnants of its once powerful presence. Back in 2005, it was Moscow, which first demonstrated the eagerness to attend the nascent EAS.

9. With the same US president, the Asean leaders will have extra time to contemplate on the new Chinese leaders in place next week. For the past decade, Asean has taken for granted that China would not act assertively as it would be accommodative with Asean's interest and remain at best benign. Of late, the disputes in South China Sea and its consequential have changed this long-standing perception. From now on, Asean, individually and collectively, would have to decipher the new batch of younger Chinese leaders and their motives toward the region. Failure to do so would further deepen mutual suspicion that both sides could not afford to have at this juncture. At the Asean-China retreat in Pattaya at the end of October, senior officials from both sides could not agree on the exact date to kick off the negotiation on code of conduct on South China Sea. While the Asean officials were soft and positive, China, instead, delivered direct and tough words over the South China Sea situation by reiterating that China would no longer hold back - any provocation would be responded in proportional to the perceived threat by China at the time. This did not bode well for the upcoming EAS as the issue is likely to be raised along with other territorial disputes in this part of the world.

10. The Asean leaders, especially those from the Muslim countries, do not like the US policy under Romney that wants to fight war with Iran as they have maintained good bilateral relations. Despite sanctions, some Asean members have continued to trade with Iran. Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand have extensive economic ties with Iran.

Kavi Chongkittavorn

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