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.
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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.Skip to next paragraph
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ASEAN, which has a combined population of more than 500 million people, is already a major trading partner with the US. But efforts under President Bush to pursue bilateral trade packages with Thailand and Malaysia came unstuck, in part because of political constraints in those countries, and have underscored the region's increasing orientation toward China, Japan, South Korea and, to a lesser extent, India.
US exclusion from trade deals?
Sen. Richard Lugar this week urged the Obama administration to begin trade talks with ASEAN, which has in recent years signed wide-ranging trade deals with China, India, Australia and South Korea, raising concerns of US exclusion.
Analysts say governments in Southeast Asia don't expect Obama to take up this call, as the US Congress is likely to resist during tough economic times. Free-trade deals are unpopular in key Democrat constituencies such as labor unions, where cheap imports and outsourcing are blamed for job losses. Obama wants to use his political capital on health care and Afghanistan.
More modest forms of cooperation, such as a recently agreed tie-up between the Mississippi River Commission and the five-nation Mekong River Commission on managing water resources, may be sufficient for now, they say.
US message: We're back in Asia
The White House won't come to Singapore completely emptyhanded on trade, says Ernest Bower, a Southeast Asia expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. Obama will express its support for the Transpacific Partnership, a step toward to an Asia-Pacific free-trade deal.
The message that the administration will be sending is "that the US is back in Asia," says Mr. Bower. "If the results bear that intention out, it will be interesting to see whether China can raise its game in the region, as well as whether the US can sustain new levels of commitment," he says via e-mail.
Indonesians who had hoped that Obama would make a side-trip to Jakarta, the capital, were disappointed when his schedule was announced, though US diplomats have said a visit is likely next year. Obama is holding a bilateral meeting with Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono in Singapore.