U.S. Increasing Attention to Asia
By Nehginpao Kipgen
In today’s international politics, no region of the world is too far to reach out to. Whether it is for good or bad, what happens in one part of the world could have its global impacts. This emerging trend brings the East and the West closer.
For example, the fifty years of conflicts in the military-ruled Burma and insurgency problems in Afghanistan have its ramifications across the globe. The conflicts in these nations have become an opportunity for the United States and Asia to work together.
The increasing U.S. attention toward Asia was evidenced when Hillary Clinton paid her maiden visit to Asia in less than a month in office as secretary of state in February. The visit of president Barack Obama himself, which begins November 12, is an indication of how critical and important the role of Asian nations in this 21st century world politics.
Obama will attend the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit in Singapore on November 15 where he will meet heads of the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), including the prime minister of Burma. The U.S.-ASEAN meeting will be more cordial this time because of the new U.S. engagement policy toward Burma.
In the previous years, Washington avoided any constructive dialogue with ASEAN leaders primarily because of its strained relations with the reclusive Burma. The U.S. downgraded its level of representation in Burma from Ambassador to Chargé d’Affaires after the government’s crackdown on the opposition in 1988 democracy uprising and its failure to honor the results of the 1990 parliamentary election. The U.S. has also imposed sanctions.
In a 9-month long policy review, the Obama administration concluded that engagement-sanction strategy could be a viable solution for Burma’s protracted conflicts. Washington understands the ineffectiveness of sanctions, without a coordinated international approach. In a test of a high-level engagement, the assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific Affairs and his deputy visited the country in the first week of November.
In recent years, the ASEAN leadership was heavily criticized by the international community for being too soft on the Burmese military junta with its engagement policy. ASEAN also shot back by criticizing the isolationist policy of the Western nations, particularly the United States.
The new engagement policy gives the opportunity for both ASEAN leadership and the U.S. government to work together for a common objective of democratizing Burma. A successful democratic transition in Burma will bring more credibility to ASEAN as a responsible organization. The successful collaboration will also serve as a bridge between and the East and the West.
ASEAN now needs to prove that the East-West policy of collaborated engagement can produce a tangible democratic change within its own members, including improvement of human rights, which the organization envisages.
Though there are a number of important issues that matters in the U.S.-Asian relations, war on terrorism, economy, and global warming remain the underlining factors. With his popularity in the nations he plans to visit, Obama is likely to receive a warm reception in China, Japan and South Korea.
The second and third largest economies of the world are in Asia. Both Japan and China have large investments and business interests in the United States. China is the largest holder of U.S. foreign debt and its second-largest trading partner. Beijing holds nearly $700 billion in U.S. Treasury securities.
Despite the shared common interests, Beijing and Washington have a diametrically opposing political beliefs and views. While China is propagating the success of its communist ethos, the U.S. is advocating to advance democracy around the world. Human rights issue is one main factor that divides the two nations.
By visiting China, Obama will not create an impression that Washington is distancing itself from Japan and South Korea. President Obama will visit both countries to discuss pressing issues such as North Korea, Iran, the global economy, climate change, energy, human rights, and Afghanistan and Pakistan. Obama is likely to use his Tokyo visit to highlight the U.S. engagement plans in Asia.
The president is expected to urge its allies in the region for support in the ongoing military campaigns in Afghanistan and Pakistan. He will also use the trip to reiterate the importance of denuclearizing the Korean peninsula and preventing Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons. He is also expected to put emphasis on regional security and tackling global warming.
With Beijing’s growing military and economic influence in the region, Washington sees itself in a strategically disadvantaged position by not paying close attention to Asia. More U.S. engagement with Asia is expected in the coming years.
Nehginpao Kipgen is a researcher on the rise of political conflicts in modern Burma (1947-2004) and general secretary of the U.S.-based Kuki International Forum (www.kukiforum.com). He has written numerous analytical articles on the politics of Burma and Asia for many leading international newspapers in Asia, Africa, and the United States of America.