Monday, April 26, 2010

A Test of Obama’s Commitment to Asia

Put yourself in the shoes of the US assistant secretary of state for East Asian affairs, Kurt Campbell — the moccasins of Jeff Bader, the National Security Council’s senior director for Asia, would work too — and think about this November. It’s not quite a horror movie — more like “Gallipoli.”

The scene is Bader’s office in the Old Executive Office Building, the camera slowly pans 360 degrees — cabinet spilling over with books on various moments in Asian history, half empty take-out container with braised tofu teasing mold, couch rumpled, looking slept on. Campbell, standing next to Bader seated, both grimacing, brows knit in unison, the camera pans down Campbell’s arm to his hand growing roots into Bader’s desk, next to it is a calendar — the president’s calendar for November 2010. A pink Post-It with Rahm Emanuel’s extension stuck to the upper left corner. Key Tubular Bells music.

November is ugly. It defines the challenge for US policy in Asia. The US president, one of the most capable, articulate and marketable leaders in recent history — a guy who actually grew up in Indonesia for several years — has defined himself as the “Pacific President.” Commitments have been made — “we get it,” “being there is 90 percent of the game in Asia” — and so we look forward to the 2nd Asean-US Summit.

Officials at the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs rock back on their davenport smiling as they see the potential for the earlier than expected fruition of their prophecies that the United States can say it is committed to Asia, but it can’t sustain that commitment. Are they right?

Now it’s time to deliver, to show up — or to be marvelously innovative.

A drop of sweat pops onto the calendar below with a pop. They stare:

Nov. 2: US midterm elections. Nov. 11-12: G-20 Summit in Seoul. Nov. 13-14: APEC Leaders meeting in Yokohama.

The heat is on the Democrats in the House and Senate, the Republicans have decided to go completely “no” and rely on historical patterns of anti-incumbency in midterm elections, particularly acute when your party holds the White House and both chambers on the Hill. That makes a trade agenda, the fundamental platform of credible and sustainable Asia policy, untouchable.

The G-20 is the new global architecture and hosted by Obama’s good friend, South Korean President Lee Myung-bak — he’ll be there; the APEC leaders meeting is a must because you can’t no-show, no matter how badly Hatoyama is jangling the alliance, when you are hosting the party in Hawaii next year.

What about the US-Asean Summit? It is core to US engagement in regional trade and security architecture. Secretary Clinton said the centrality of Asean was a core principle for Asian regionalism in her Honolulu speech just three months ago. The president has committed to attend after verily initiating the forum in Singapore last November. Asean has invited the president to Hanoi — but in October, which is the date for the Asean Summit, Asean + 3 and the East Asia Summit (EAS).

Truth be told, Hanoi would make so much sense — a diplomatic hat-trick in the waiting. It is the 15th anniversary of US-Vietnam relations, Hanoi’s 1000th birthday and a chance to promote, without even saying a word, just by being there, economic reformers and pro-engagement Vietnamese leaders who are being challenged by the withered but powerful septa- and octogenarians in the Communist Party in the run-up to the National Party Congress in 2011.

But October is a non-starter. The Chicago Mafia, the president’s political cerebral cortex in the White House, won’t let him out in the world weeks ahead of midterms. They’ve demonstrated their muscle twice before smothering planned Indonesia visits in favor of trips to Ohio to stump for health care reform — and not without results. Yet, Asean has clearly indicated it is not possible to hold a US-Asean Summit on Japanese soil.

Campbell and Bader are experienced, capable officials. But their options are limited. The domestic political forces in the White House are empowered and don’t even consider such conflicts to be a competition. The president will need to step in and make his views known. If he does so, there is a way to lead in Asia. Make no mistake; getting Asean right is fundamental to American strength in dealing with China, Japan, India and the rest of Asia.

The options are:

•Add two days in Hanoi after APEC and convince the Asean leaders to fly from Japan to Hanoi to hold the 2nd Annual US Asean-Summit;

•Add Hanoi to the planned June trip to Indonesia and Australia;

•Invite the Asean leaders to Hawaii or Washington on their way to or from the UN General Assembly meeting in September.

The pressure is on. The stakes are high, but this movie could and should end with a happy ending.

By Ernest Z Bower senior adviser and director of the Southeast Asia program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington , DC.East Asia Forum

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