US President Barack Obama's whirlwind tour of Asia is aimed at signalling a new era of US engagement in a region that could offer vital support on security issues and which accounts for more than half of the world's economy.
As US President Barack Obama embarks on his first trip to Asia since coming to office, a host of economic and security issues await his attention but there are few expectations that he will secure any concrete deals. Instead, the whirlwind visit is largely aimed at signalling the start of a new era of US engagement in a region that accounts for more than half of global output.
As the United States and much of Europe struggled through recessions this year, many Asian economies – including those of China, India, Indonesia and Vietnam – grew steadily, while the region’s 4.3 billion people saw their incomes continue to rise. But Washington, preoccupied with two foreign wars and grappling with an economic crisis, has been unable to position itself to share in Asia’s swift gains. Instead, it has watched regional trade pacts multiply in recent years while the nominal GDP of the region as a whole doubled between 2004 and 2008.
China, India and South Korea as well as Australia and New Zealand have already concluded free-trade pacts with the 10 members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). The 21-nation grouping of Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) nations – which includes Mexico, the United States and Australia – accounts for 55 percent of global GDP and almost 45 percent of the world’s trade.
“We are standing on the sidelines while Asian nations clinch new trade deals,” US Chamber of Commerce president Thomas Donahue told the Wall Street Journal on Wednesday. “The result is a de facto East Asia free-trade area – effectively a third bloc in the global economy alongside North America and Europe.”
Donahue said some 168 trade pacts are in operation in Asia today, while the US has only two bilateral deals – with Australia and Singapore – in place to advance its own regional economic interests. A third trade agreement with South Korea has hit an impasse over labour issues and opposition from US automakers.
“The United States is increasingly on the outside looking in,” Donahue told the paper.
The International Monetary Fund said in late October that Asian economies would grow an average of 2.75 percent in 2009 and 5.75 percent next year, compared with its forecast of little to negative growth for both the United States and Western Europe.
Opposition in Okinawa
Obama’s meeting on Friday with Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama comes as the two nations mark 50 years since establishing the security alliance that has characterised their relationship since the end of World War Two. But relations have proved rocky over the issue of relocating a base on Okinawa, where US marines – part of the 47,000 US troops in Japan – are stationed. Residents strongly oppose the presence of US forces on the island.
Obama is looking for something concrete on his Tokyo visit, namely, a renewal of Japanese help in Afghanistan. Hatoyama said after being elected in September that he would push for more "equal" ties with Washington. He also announced that he would not renew a Japanese mission in the Indian Ocean that had provided refuelling for US troops in Afghanistan since 2001. Last week, however, the Hatoyama government pledged $5 billion in non-military aid to the struggling country.
Both the United States and Japan share a vital interest in ensuring that North Korea decommissions its nuclear programme and have pledged to cooperate to that end. South Korea mirrors this concern and the nuclear North promises to top the agenda when Obama arrives in Seoul on Nov. 18.
Talks with China promise to prove a challenge when Obama visits Shanghai and Beijing, where he will hold formal talks and attend a state dinner on Tuesday. Washington is looking to address a trade imbalance with China, the second-largest US trading partner, and is hoping to convince Beijing to recalibrate its economic efforts toward the domestic market rather than aggressively focusing on exports. Obama will also urge China, the largest single holder of US foreign debt, to raise the value of its currency, the yuan.
China’s regional influence remains strong and Obama is also looking to secure Chinese help on global security issues, including reviving nuclear negotiations with both North Korea and Iran.
“It's a common perception in the region that US influence has been on the decline in the last decade, while Chinese influence has been increasing,” Obama's top East Asia aide, Jeffrey Bader, said on Thursday.
Bader said one of the messages Obama hopes to send on this trip is that the United States has vital interests in the Asia-Pacific region and that it is there “for the long haul”.
Speaking in Japan on Friday, Obama said the United States will, in the future, be “deepening our engagement in this part of the world”.
Key reversal on Burma
Much is being made of Obama’s attendance at the weekend ASEAN summit in Singapore, the first-ever US-ASEAN meeting and which Burmese leaders will also attend.
For years Washington has avoided dealings with the military regime in Burma (Myanmar) due to its poor human rights record and the continued imprisonment of opposition leader and Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi. But earlier this month, US Assistant Secretary of State Kurt Campbell visited the country to hold talks with the junta in what was the highest-level US engagement with the country in 14 years.
Long one of Washington’s thorniest foreign policy questions in the region, frozen relations with Burma have contributed to limiting US engagement in Asia. Previous attempts to bring US and ASEAN leaders together have been derailed by the US refusal to sit at the table with the repressive regime.
“The US has decided that its ASEAN policy will not be determined by its policy towards Myanmar,” Singapore Foreign Minister George Yeo said on Tuesday, calling Obama’s decision to attend the summit a “breakthrough”.
US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said on Thursday that no plans were in place for a face-to-face meeting, but that there “may be the opportunity … to meet with the leaders of Burma”, adding that the move would be “something we have not done before”.
Yeo took it a step farther, however, saying that bilateral negotiations were ongoing.
“The US is now in direct talks with Myanmar,” he said. “Not all of it is publicised.”