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Asian Tribune is published by World Institute For Asian Studies|Powered by WIAS Vol. 12 No. 731

A Southeast Asian Perspective: Obama Going to Burma on 19th Instant

By Kanbawza Win

I was glued to the television as Mitt Romney gained in the early stages of elections and when the 174 mark was reached breathed a sigh of relief.

Praise the Lord. One thing which I am quite positive is that from now on, US policy on Asia will speak volumes and firm up. This is the first occasion in which a two-time American president has made concrete proposals regarding Asia and he will now be able to implement them in full.

His Foreign-Policy outlook remains solid and useful for this region and he will also be the first American president to travel to Southeast Asia, only two weeks from now.

A Burmese government official has confirmed. “Obama will come to Rangoon on Nov. 19. and met the president and Daw Aung San Suu Kyi in attending the East Asia Summit in Phnom Penh” the White House has just confirmed the trip. The American Nobel Peace Prize meeting the Burmese Nobel Peace prize is quite natural and this historic visit would no doubt embolden President Thein Sein’s reform agenda while boosting the image of a government that came to power through rigged elections in 2010.

We can only hope that the world will be a much better and safer place when his re-election comes at the same time, as China is also electing a new batch of leaders with Xi Jinping as the new president and Secretary-General of the Communist Party. US-China relations can be expected to improve further, despite competitive tensions in East Asia and the Pacific.

Therefore we can hope that the world's most important bilateral relationship is on the upswing. The upcoming East Asia Summit in Phnom Penh (Cambodia) will serve as litmus test regarding how the US and China can work together for the prosperity and stability of Asia, and particularly on sensitive security issues.

The World knew that the U S remains a key actor in the contemporary era. It has the biggest economy in the world, possesses more military capabilities than the next leading 10 countries combined, and is the pre-eminent player in the production of popular culture. The US is not only different from other nations but that it provides an exemplary political model for the rest of the world.4

As for foreign policy, Mr Obama has pledged to maintain the strongest military in the world but believes after a decade of war, the US must nation-build at home and lead by force of example rather than the example of force. For the Obama team, history does not need to be "shaped" because it already offers a clear and positive verdict for United States values and interests. In an interconnected world, it is the ideas of democracy, not dictatorship and political fundamentalism, which have mass support.

But whether Asia policy gets the kind of attention from the US as during the first term will depend partly on who succeeds Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. She has made at least a dozen trips to the region including Burma and championed the view that U.S. interests lie in more ties with that booming continent. Clinton’s visit to Burma in December last year was also an interesting turning point in US-Burma relations.

Washington decided to relax restrictive measures and even powerful US congressmen, who have long been vehemently pro-sanctions in line with Suu Kyi, visited Burma and decided it was time to welcome the former pariah nation back into the fold. Perhaps, the agenda of the next secretary of state, who is yet to be named, could be at the mercy of events for political problems at home could also cramp Obama’s outreach to Asia.

His most immediate domestic challenge is an impending showdown over tackling the national debt that economists say could send the world’s biggest economy back into recession. We know that he must reach a budget deal with Republicans to prevent a combination of automatic tax increases and steep across-the-board spending cuts—dubbed a “fiscal cliff”—set to take effect in January. That would entail nearly US $500 billion in defense spending cuts over a decade that could undermine plans to devote more military assets to the Asia-Pacific, where the increased capabilities of Chinese forces pose not only a growing challenge to US pre-eminence in the region but its assertiveness is felt in Asia. Obama has attempted a balancing act in relations with Beijing, seeking deeper ties and encouraging it to play by international norms to ward off the possibility of confrontation. His second term is likely to see more attention on economic ties with Asia. The US will be looking to finalize the Trans-Pacific Partnership, an 11-nation regional trade pact in a time of bitter partisanship in Washington, which could be an issue where Obama finds common cause with Republicans.

President Barrack Obama’s visit to Southeast Asia, have been largely welcomed by the region’s political and business establishments.5 Burma has been deemed the success story of Obama’s foreign policy strategy. During his annual State of the Union address to a joint session of Congress, the 44th US president praised ongoing democratic reforms by noting, “A new beginning in Burma has lit a new hope.” Burma is a neighbor of China and India with direct access to the strategically important Bay of Bengal and Indian Ocean. Moreover, a country bordering China, and generally known to be in Beijing’s pocket, which suddenly forges closer ties with Washington is a rare foreign policy coup for the White House. Burma’s move from authoritarian rule to democracy will therefore be welcome in Washington, even if it still has far to go, and this can also be seen as a political achievement for Obama in election year. Obama’s strategic policy of using Burma as its “pivot towards Asia” has been greeted with interest in Southeast Asia. Many countries in the region want to counter China’s growing influence and this could work in Washington’s favor.6

China’s investment in Burma reached US $20.26 billion by the end of last year, making it once again the nation’s largest foreign economic partner. In the first six months of this year, bilateral trade amounted to $2.6 billion, while China’s investments also increased during this period with heavy input in the energy sector. Li Junhua, Chinese ambassador to Burma, recently told Xinhua news agency that for more than 60 years of Sino-Burmese diplomatic relations, the two countries’ leaders have maintained frequent and reciprocal visits based on mutual respect and support, pushing the continuous development of traditional, neighborly and friendly ties. China’s influence and strong political ties with Burma’s top leaders—including active and retired military bigwigs plus the business community and Burmese-born Chinese businessmen—should not be discounted. In the past, China used its veto to protect the former Junta from frequent condemnation at the UN Security Council. To be blunt, China thinks Burma owes it one. But Chinese influence on the Burmese public is almost non-existent and indeed contrasts strongly with the US. Washington’s engagement in Burma does not merely involve the government—it has established strong contacts with opposition and civil society groups both inside and outside the country. Burma continues to normalize relations with the US, we can anticipate some dramatic changes in its foreign policy balance sheet. One thing is sure; Burma does not want a patron-client relationship as other neighbouring countries the only aspect is that Burma no longer needs to hide behind China. The fact remains that China will not sit idly by and let Burma go without a fight.7

If Mitt Romney had won he would have no reason to come to Southeast Asia not to mention Burma and would to consolidate his new administrative and reshape US foreign policy towards the Middle East, focusing on Israel and Iran. Muslim countries of ASEAN like Malaysia, Indonesia, Brunei did not like Mitt Romney proposed US war with Iran as they have maintained good bilateral relations with Iran and Arab states. If Asia matters, it is all about China and Japan.

If there has ever been any US president that is knowledgeable and appreciative of ASEAN, it is Obama. The US rebalancing policy with the incumbent remaining at the White House, this policy will enter its second phase with intensified US engagement with group members in all areas. It will also be a new security toolbox for the region. The world wants a US president with a practical foreign policy towards China. The Obama administration’s policy is both competitive and collaborative which augurs well with the ASEAN approach to the two super dialogue partners and the region will benefit from this balanced approach providing it has sufficient room to engage and secure influence in ways that would increase the region’s profile.

Currently Cambodia wants to demonstrates demonstrate that it has a neutral foreign policy regarding major powers, especially towards the US and China. For him to come this far and visit Cambodia and Burma without touching down on tarmac in Thailand, a long-standing US ally, would be utterly impossible.

We prefer a US leader who does not treat Russia as an enemy as it would have a direct impact on overall regional peace and stability. Russia under third-time President Vladimir Putin is returning to the region, in particular the previous Indochina, where the former Soviet Union used to reign supreme. Moscow wants closer cooperation with ASEAN and is willing to do more to harness these relations. Please recollect that in 2005, it was Moscow that demonstrated eagerness to attend the nascent East Asia Submit .

ASEAN hitherto has taken for granted that China would not act assertively as it would be accommodative to the bloc’s interests and remain at best benign but at the ASEAN-China retreat in Pattaya at the end of October Beijing delivered direct and tough words by reiterating that it would no longer hold back—any provocation would see a proportional response to the perceived threat to China at the time. This did not bode well as is likely to other territorial disputes in this part of the world. Hence ASEAN have changed this long-standing perception and now, individually and collectively, will have to decipher a 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. Obama’s visit came at the right time.

Two factors could have catapulted international affairs to greater prominence: American embassy attack in Libya attack and the foreign-policy debate.9 “It's Libya where Romney went weak” according to Washington Post' "He could have hit Obama on Libya in the third debate. He could have hit him after. He never touched him. It would have been devastating for Obama. Romney looked set to spark a currency war with Beijing out of a misplaced diagnosis of America's economic woes — blaming China for the US increase in debt — and the cost could have plunged the economies. The culmination of the US presidential race would also seem to end the slew of anti-China remarks from both major-party candidates even though it won't alter the nature of US-Chinese relations. The second Obama administration will continue the trade disputes with China but unlike Romney, president will not brand China as a currency manipulator. Obama is likely to try to mend the US-China relationship and “initiate greater diplomacy over a range of issues to find common ground.” The US economy has rebounded — slowly — from the subprime-mortgage crisis and resulting financial tumult Obama inherited in 2009. While his policies, some a continuation of Bush's, helped avert catastrophes in the banking and automotive industries. At least 37 US states are home to some form of Chinese investment, supporting about 30,000 jobs in sectors including auto parts, information technology and services, according to consulting firm Rhodium Group.

But Obama has blocked Ralls Corp, owned by executives of China's Sany Heavy Industry Co, from buying four wind farms near a US navy test site in Oregon, citing national-security concerns. It was the first time in more than two decades that a US president barred a foreign investment. It is counterproductive for bilateral relations that are far more extensive than just economic issues. It is good politics but bad economics. Blaming China for jobs lost during a recession may be popular with the average American voter, but the worst thing that could happen to the American economy is if China's economy were to falter. But Obama’s visit will be the most significant step in the effort to support human rights and democracy in Burma, and stop the ethnic cleansing.

End Notes

1 The Nation, Obama's victory could bode well for the region 8-11-2012

2 Obama expected in Burma Official this month Irrawaddy 8-11-2012. It was also reported in the AP News and Lethbridge Herald. But later confirmed by the White House 9-11- 2012 Euro Asia.

3 Zaw; Aung Obama to Burma Irrawaddy 7-11-2012

4 Otago Daily Times Barack Obama v Mitt Romney - a clash of visions and policies for the United States 8-11-2012

5 Phyo; Kyaw Tha and Aung; Dennis Burma’s Joy at Obama’s Victory and VisitIrrawaddy 8-11-2012

5Phyo; Kyaw Tha and Aung; Dennis Burma’s Joy at Obama’s Victory and VisitIrrawaddy 8-11-2012

6 Zaw; Aung Obama to Burma Irrawaddy 7-11-2012

7 Zaw; Aung Obama to Burma Irrawaddy 7-11-2012

Chonkittavorn; Kavia Ten Reasons, ASEAN Prefers OBAMA 5-1- 2012 The Nation Daily

8 Chonkittavorn; Kavia Ten Reasons, ASEAN Prefers OBAMA 5-1- 2012 The Nation Daily

9 Foreign Policy Did foreign Policy Matters in 2012 Elections 7-1-2012

10 http://www.smh.com.au/opinion/political-news/obamas-return-comes-with-re...

11 YUWEI; Zhang in China Daily 7-11-2012

12 Ibid

- Asian Tribune -

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