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Obama's Asia trip: In Singapore, a focus on US staying power

On the second stop of Obama's Asia trip, the president will meet with the 10 ASEAN leaders in a region that welcomes the US presence as a counterbalance to China.

By Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor / November 14, 2009

Bangkok, Thailand

It's a region where Obama has personal ties: As a child, he lived for four years in Indonesia, where his presidency has drawn rapt attention.

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The positive accent on his visit, which starts Saturday, may say less about his charisma, however, than about lingering anxieties here over US disengagement from the region. Few expect any bold initiatives on trade liberalization or other economic issues, in contrast to China's energetic brand of commercial diplomacy.

But the symbolic value of a US presidential tour, coupled with a much-anticipated inaugural summit with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), could help to reassure doubters of America's staying power in Asia. As China extends its economic influence, few appear ready to turn their backs on a half-century of US military dominance in the Pacific's contested waters.

This should compensate for a lack of giveaways by the leader of what still is, by far, the world's richest country, despite Asia's commercial success.

"It's not short-term goodies that ASEAN wants, it's a long-term commitment," says Kishore Mahbubani, dean of the Public Policy School at the National University of Singapore and a former diplomat. "The long-term signal is what he has to send."

Obama's stay in Singapore, which is hosting the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit, of which the US is a member, has been squeezed to less than two days, down from three, due to his delayed departure. Unlike on other stops in Asia, he will be making his case in corridors and conference rooms, not at town-hall gatherings. Nor will his presence in authoritarian Singapore stir any public outcry as protests are frowned upon.

Thaw toward Burma paved way

By holding a joint meeting with the 10 leaders of ASEAN, Asia's only rules-based trading club, Obama is breaking with previous US policy toward military-ruled Burma (Myanmar). Past US presidents have frozen out Burmese leaders: Lyndon Johnson was the last to have met with a head of state from Burma.

But a partial d├ętente between the two countries paved the way for a US-ASEAN summit in Singapore, which is a member of APEC and ASEAN and a staunch US military ally. Burmese Prime Minister Thein Sein, who met last week with two visiting US diplomats, will represent Burma at the meeting.

We want more regular contact

ASEAN leaders will be watching to see if Obama reciprocates by inviting them to the US, thus making their summit an annual event.

"They want a contact that's more regular. But they know that Obama has problems with Iran and Middle East," says Kavi Chongkittavorn, a columnist and expert on ASEAN at the Nation newspaper in Bangkok.

The dynamics within ASEAN, a diverse grouping of political systems, may shift next year when Vietnam takes over its rotating chair. Vietnam has been at odds with China over claims on potentially oil-rich islands in the South China Sea and will push ASEAN towards a more united stance, says Mr. Chongkittavorn.