Mr Karpal Singh welcomed everybody, and stated that the night’s session was an opportunity to discuss a range of topics that intersected across two cultural frames; that of the US and Asia. To wit, the first weeks of the Obama administration was a good time to take measure of the U.S.’s role in Asia, particularly Southeast Asia, what the new administration could offer the region, and vice versa.
In the opening speech, Mr. Simon Tay - chairman of the SIIA, stressed that it was a pertinent time to think about capitalizing on the Obama administration’s new emphasis on Asia and the region, highlighted by Secretary of State Clinton’s visit to neighbouring Indonesia.
Charge d’Affaires Daniel Shields gave the keynote speech in which he stressed that President Obama would work on building the already strong relations that exist between the U.S. and Singapore. U.S.-Singapore trade links have been affirmed under the Free Trade Agreement, and the United States is appreciative of Singapore’s contributions in Iraq and Afghanistan. Singapore can look forward to President Obama’s visit in November for the APEC Leaders’ Meeting, which Singapore is hosting this year. Secretary of State Clinton’s visit to the region, particularly Indonesia, signals that the Obama administration will continue the United States’ active engagement with Asia at large, and Southeast Asia.
On the issue of the economy, the U.S. government has made the economy’s recovery its top priority. Both Congress and the Obama administration are mindful of striking a balance between the concerns of the U.S.’s domestic audience and taking heed not to cause international trade friction. The Obama administration has stressed that the road to economic recovery will not be easy, and that cooperation with leaders in Asia and partners in the G-20 is required.
President Obama is placing a major focus on U.S.-Muslim relations, and this flows from a desire to start a dialogue with Muslim audiences about the relationship between the Muslim world and the United States. He believes Americans and Muslims can work toward common goals, such as a more peaceful Middle East, and that disagreements can be handled through respectful dialogue.
On the issues that have created tension with the Muslim community, President Obama has set a new course to address these issues, such as the closing of facilities at Guantanamo Bay Naval Base. President Obama’s resolve to fight terrorism in a way “consistent with our values and our ideals” means that partnering with moderates in the Islamic world is a necessary step.
Besides his engagement with Indonesia, President Obama has also made a commitment to achieve peace in the Middle East, appointing George Mitchell as Special Envoy for Middle East Peace and making “a sustained push to achieve the goal of two states – a Jewish state in Israel and a Palestinian state”, and working in tandem with the European Union, Russia and all the Arab states in the region. The U.S. government is also committed to the humanitarian needs of Gaza, and has authorized 20.3 million dollars from the U.S. Emergency Refugee and Migration Assistance Fund, nearly 60 million dollars of which are meant for Gaza.
The panel discussion that followed the keynote speech addressed the issues in the speech, as well as issues thrown up by the electronic polling of the audience that was conducted on the spot. The key themes that that were touched upon in the panel discussion included the high expectations of the Obama administration and its performance thus far; the U.S. economy, its performance and how its trade policies would affect other economies, particularly Southeast Asia; prospects for ASEAN-U.S. and U.S.-Asia relations; and whether climate change would still be on the policy agenda in the wake of the global economic downturn.
On the Obama administration, the panel noted that the high expectations of the administration, combined with the economic downturn, meant that any missteps on the part of the administration was bound to be amplified. In this situation, it is important to keep a sense of perspective, and not rush to judgment despite an understandable sense of urgency and expectation. With most of the people polled expressing the beliefs that the Obama administration was doing well, but also that it would take 2-4 years for economic recovery, it seems that most have a realistic understanding of the challenges facing the new administration. The U.S.’s trade policy was noted to be no more protectionist than any other state: this observation came after the uproar over the U.S. “Buy American” clause in the economic stimulus package. Indeed, Prof. Hunter observed that the U.S. was actively re-thinking protectionist tariffs, such as those imposed on the textile industry and clove cigarette manufacturing industry in Indonesia. He argued that while big ticket items covered in the ‘Buy American’ clause such as steel was already heavily regulated by world trade and therefore would not have much impact on local economies, the lifting of tariffs on relatively low-technology products such as textiles would have a far more meaningful impact on local economies.
With regard to the U.S. in Asia, an exchange of views between the panelists highlighted that the U.S.’s relations with Japan and China form an important triad, with US-India-Pakistan relations being another major consideration. The panelists also commentated that the U.S.’s concurrent bilateral relations with Japan and China have never been as good as they are now, and that governments should capitalize on this. These political triads, combined with the US’s economic performance, would be the key factors in shaping the political landscape and economic policies of Southeast Asian countries.
On the appropriate mechanisms for the U.S. to engage with Asia, there was a discussion over the feasibility of ASEAN as a dialogue partner, in addition to APEC which is already an established forum for trade issues in the trans-Pacific. Both Mr Okun and Prof. Hunter observed that the issue of human rights violations was an impediment to deeper U.S-ASEAN dialogue, although Assoc. Prof. Tay was optimistic that a shared interest in trans-Pacific governance issues would bridge the gap. It was also noted that APEC was a possible springboard for deeper U.S.-ASEAN engagement.
On the issue of climate change, the panelists felt that clean energy technologies were an enormous source of economic potential. As a new technology, and a new niche economy, clean energy would probably make the U.S. more competitive. As such, the panelists agreed that energy policy is going to play a large part in the restructuring and revitalization of the American economy, if not necessarily at the top of the agenda. A note of caution was raised with regard to American lobbies slowing down the reform of energy technology, particularly lobby groups from the automobile and oil industries.
Another issue that was alluded to and further elaborated upon in the Q&A session was that of the possible economic strategies of Asian economies in the eventuality of a slowed or stagnant U.S. economy. While the panelists were confident that the U.S. would not let bipartisan politics overshadow the pressing economic needs of the country, they also noted that the U.S. workforce was likely to become more competitive and streamlined. Asian countries, particularly export-dependent countries, could and should re-look the structuring of their economies so that they would be well-poised to engage with a recovering global economy in the future, but also take care not to hamstring the global trade climate with protectionist structures.
Event reported by:
Ms. Grace Lu