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.

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.

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 détente 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.

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.

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