President Obama’s decision to visit Thailand, Myanmar and Cambodia later this week is a surprising but welcome affirmation of the US’s continuing commitment to its Asian ‘pivot’. It’s surprising because Americans will overwhelmingly think that Obama’s primary task right now should be to negotiate an outcome with Congress to prevent billions of dollars of programmed spending cuts from being implemented in early January 2013. By comparison, spending eighty hours in three Southeast Asian countries will seem like an odd priority to an American audience. It demonstrates just how personally Obama is committed to the Asia-Pacific and America’s engagement with it.
For Southeast Asia, the visit is deeply significant and all the more so because Obama has picked three countries in the region that fall closest to China’s orbit of influence. I take as my text here Sergio Leone’s magnificent spaghetti western, The Good, the Bad and the Ugly.True, the film is not often referenced on Asian security matters but stick with me, dear reader.
Obama will first visit Thailand—the Good in my analogy, because Thailand is a treaty ally of the United States. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta will also visit Bangkok on Thursday after AUSMIN. Reportedly, Thailand will announce a decision to join the Proliferation Security Initiative. The US will seek to reinvigorate an alliance relationship which has somewhat atrophied. We should expect an announcement highlighting increased cooperation to facilitate Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster Response (HADR) operations—these days the preferred way to initiate military cooperation at the softer end of the defence scale.
The last country on Obama’s schedule is Cambodia, which is hosting the seventh East Asia Summit from 18 to 20 November. Cambodia gets ‘the Bad’ tag in my analogy because of the embarrassing outcome in July this year at the ASEAN Ministerial Meeting (AMM). Cambodia used its position as Chair to block any reference to maritime disputes in the South China Sea. For the first time the AMM failed to issue a communiqué after its meeting – not a good look for ASEAN credibility. The incident highlighted the heightened sense of great power competition for influence in Southeast Asia. Cambodia needs to host an effective East Asia Summit to regain some credit after that past unhappy outcome.
Myanmar, for obvious reasons is ‘the Ugly’ because even though it is reforming it remains an authoritarian system with a record of serious human rights abuses. Obama’s visit is highly significant because it must reflect an American judgement that political reform is now unstoppable. The hope must be that Obama’s considerable charm will speed up the processes of reform, encourage the regime to put more distance in its relationship with China, establish a defence engagement with the US after being invited to join the multinational Cobra Gold exercise, and become a more constructive player in ASEAN. The visit isn’t without risk to Obama, but played right it could be remembered as a significant act of statesmanship.
What lessons should we take from Obama’s decision to visit these countries? First, Southeast Asia is rising much higher on America’s list of strategic priorities than at any time since the end of the Vietnam War. Second the ‘pivot’ will continue to drive greater American engagement in the region. Third, like The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, the region is emerging as a dangerous and highly competitive place. Coalition building is the order of the day and soft power works best when there is some hard power behind it.
Peter Jennings is executive director of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute. Image courtesy of Flickr user throwthedamnthing.