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U.S.: Obama to Meet Asian Leaders as China’s Shadow Lengthens

Eli Clifton

WASHINGTON, Nov 11 2009 (IPS) - U.S. President Barack Obama’s attendance at the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) forum leaders’ meeting in Singapore next week will chart a new direction for U.S. participation in Asian multilateral diplomacy and call attention to the new administration’s policy of engagement with the reclusive military-led government in Burma.

Next week’s summit between Obama and Southeast Asian leaders, which will occur on the sidelines of the APEC summit, signifies a major shift in U.S. diplomacy towards Southeast Asia from the approach of the George W. Bush administration, which focused on counterterrorism and military cooperation but largely ignored regional diplomatic frameworks, while China expanded its economic ties to the region.

China’s increasing economic engagement in Southeast Asia has become most evident in its extensive economic ties to the ruling military junta in Burma and the China-ASEAN free trade agreement (FTA) which will come into effect in January.

The Association of Southeast Asian Nations, or ASEAN, includes Brunei, Burma, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam.

Obama’s summit with Southeast Asian leaders will be historic not only for the renewed U.S. interest in U.S.-ASEAN diplomatic ties, but also in that it will be one of the highest level meetings between a U.S. president and a top leader – Prime Minister Thein Sein – in Burma’s military junta.

The U.S. imposes strict economic sanctions on Burma as a result of widespread allegations of human rights abuses committed by the military junta.

ASEAN’s policy of “constructive engagement” – seen by many human rights activists as a justification for conducting lucrative trade with Myanmar – has been a divisive issue in U.S. relations with ASEAN.

“The policy of ASEAN has been ‘constructive engagement’ but it was really profiteering,” Jennifer Quigley, advocacy director at the U.S. Campaign for Burma, told IPS. “Thailand and Singapore have been making loads of money off of this.”

The Bush administration’s policy of strict economic sanctions and no diplomatic engagement with Myanmar made it difficult to engage through the regional framework of ASEAN due to the inclusion of Burma in the grouping.

The Obama administration’s decision to engage the military junta diplomatically – while still enforcing strict economic sanctions – has been promoted by the U.S. administration as both an opportunity for the U.S. to participate in bringing about free and fair elections in 2010 and to engage ASEAN as a regional mediator in applying pressure to the ruling junta’s leader, General Than Shwe.

“I mean, if we’re able to encourage the Burmese leadership to meet in dialogue with representatives of various aspects of Burmese society, we hope that that can be encouraged by other nations and by ASEAN, maybe facilitated by ASEAN, because planning for these elections must be a priority, and how it is monitored is something to be discussed and analysed,” U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told reporters in Singapore Wednesday.

The Obama administration’s new policy towards Burma was put on show last week when Kurt Campbell, the U.S. assistant secretary of state for East Asian affairs, and his deputy, Scot Marciel made a two day trip to Burma where they met with senior junta officials as well as imprisoned pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi.

Human rights advocates have expressed optimism that the Obama administration’s policy of diplomatic engagement with Burma could prove productive but warn that no concessions on sanctions should be made until the military junta shows a commitment to credible elections in 2010.

“The biggest thing is the election next year. If [the ruling military junta] wants to move ahead with this election and have international support then they’ll have to show some tangible results before the election,” said Quigley.

“The test will be what the regime can give before the elections next year,” she continued.

Ultimately, the APEC summit and sideline meeting with ASEAN leadership next week are unlikely to bring any major surprises or agreements. However, experts here in Washington are pointing to the administration’s new emphasis on APEC as a negotiating forum – relegated to the back burner during the Bush administration – and the renewed diplomatic engagement with Burma as a sign that the Obama administration intends to put a bigger emphasis on engagement with its allies in Asia-Pacific.

“Reengaging with APEC would have other benefits as well,” wrote Joshua Kurlantzick, fellow for Southeast Asia at the Council on Foreign Relations. “It would show East Asian opinion leaders that Washington wants to play a more central role in Asia’s integration, rather than just standing on the sidelines as it has over the past decade.”

“And it would demonstrate that the administration understands that form, as much as substance, matters in Asia – a lesson China understands well,” he wrote.

While a new policy of increased diplomatic engagement in the region will likely receive high marks both in the U.S. and abroad, the staggering economic growth in Southeast Asia – its combined nominal gross domestic product (GDP) more than doubled between 2004 and 2008 – are on the minds of senior administration officials who cannot have overlooked the flurry of trade agreements signed by China over the past decade in the region.

Last year, China overtook the U.S. in becoming Southeast Asia’s third biggest trading partner – after Japan and the European Union (EU) – with 193 billion dollars in trade.

“For the time being, the Obama administration’s increased attention to the region should restore some confidence in the U.S. If the administration can sustain the effort, this may reduce the sense of urgency in the region to find a new structure that bends to China’s growing influence there, while trying to strike a balance with a distracted U.S.,” wrote Vice President for Studies Douglas H. Paal at the Carnegie Endowment for Peace.

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