Welcome American presence

THIS was a good month for US President Barack Obama whose swing through the Asia Pacific region has been hailed as a success on both economic and defence fronts.

Born in Hawaii and having spent some of his early years in Indonesia, Obama has referred to himself as the “Pacific President”. Until recently, he had been pre-occupied with sorting out issues he inherited, especially in the Middle East. Today, the US is on course to withdrawing from Iraq and Afghanistan.

This frees the Pacific President to focus his foreign policy on the Asia Pacific. This point was underscored by his Secretary of State Hillary Clinton who wrote in the latest issue of Foreign Policy magazine: “The future of politics will be decided in Asia, not Afghanistan or Iraq, and the United States will be right at the centre of the action.”

Obama himself has asserted as much. In a speech to Australia’s parliament on Nov 17, he said: “Let there be no doubt – in the Asia Pacific in the 21st century, the United States of America is all in.”

This renewed focus on Asia is two-pronged, with economic and security dimensions. And a lot of it has to do with the emerging rivalry between the US and China for top dog status in the region.

Obama was in Indonesia to see the US formally accede to the East Asia Summit, which was founded six years ago as an extension of Asean to accommodate other countries outside of Southeast Asia. Australia, China and India are already members. US membership is significant in that it gives it a permanent place in the region’s most important economic forum.

But the bigger economic story concerns the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), a little known free trade grouping that Obama championed at the Apec Summit in Hawaii. He announced that nine Asia Pacific countries have agreed to try to reach an accord within a year.

Speaking at Apec on Nov 12, Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak said the nine countries concerned are setting July as a target for an agreement. Negotiators will meet in early December and schedule more discussions then, the leaders said in a statement.

Besides the US, the other countries are Australia, Brunei, Chile, Malaysia, New Zealand, Peru, Singapore and Vietnam. Notably, both Japan and Canada have also expressed interest in joining what could be America’s largest trade pact since the 1994 North American Free Trade Agreement.

Interestingly China, the world’s second largest economy, has not received an invitation to join discussions on the TPP, an obvious move to lessen its economic impact on the region.

The US has always had a strong military connection in Asia, with Japan and South Korea as stalwart allies. But even in Southeast Asia, it has treaty allies in the form of Singapore, Thailand and the Philippines. Malaysia, though not an ally, has long had strong military cooperation with the US, although this is not widely publicised.

Obama further bolstered US security presence in the region through a new deal with Australia, announced during his recent visit there, that would place US Marines in Darwin and see port facilities enlarged to accommodate US vessels. Crucially, it would allow the US armed forces to store military equipment on another location besides Japan and South Korea.

In Malaysia, we have not heard much about increased American influence in the region. Perhaps this is because America bashing has been a popular sport here for such a long time, especially during the Mahathir era.

The reaction in neighbouring countries, however, has been less muted. Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono said the US agreement with Australia would not endanger regional security while Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said: “America remains welcome in the region and ought to stay because it has many friends, influence and much potential to do good.”

Oon Yeoh is a new media consultant. Comments: letters@thesundaily.com