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Global challenge, domestic distractions

Updated On: Nov 16, 2009

United States President Barack Obama will be late coming to Singapore. After the tragic shooting at Fort Hood, he delayed leaving the US by one day.

He will still make the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (Apec) meeting with fellow leaders on Sunday, as well as the first Summit between the US and Asean.

But Mr Obama will skip a Saturday talk to the 1,000 business leaders gathered for the CEO Summit. This is more than a scheduling problem. The Asia-Pacific has been integrated mainly by companies producing and trading across borders and are critical to economic recovery. Global challenges await but domestic issues demand attention.

Even before Fort Hood, the Obama administration was preoccupied with healthcare reform. This has soaked up legislative time and attention in these past months in Washington DC. Reform for financial supervision of banks is also stuck.

Domestic priorities not only distract but can also impact global issues in negative ways. The Fort Hood shooting targeted men being trained for Afghanistan. The US is contemplating the need to inject greater resources and manpower to deal with the difficulties there, and the shooting may well impact public support.

On climate change, delays in US legislation have hamstrung American participation at the important Copenhagen meeting, just weeks ahead. On free trade, labour unions led the Obama administration to impose measures against tyres imported from China. The US-Korean free trade agreement, while negotiated, is languishing in Congress.

With so many jobless in America, there seems little support for globalisation. Hopes are waning that Mr Obama might boldly initiate a free trade agreement with Asean or a sub-group of economies in Asia and the Pacific.

President Obama has shown charisma and inspired audiences across the world, even winning the Nobel Peace Prize. If he cannot surmount domestic issues, however, his international standing will wane. At Apec, Mr Obama may not be absent but he may be absent-minded.

He is not the only leader with domestic distractions. Ask Thai Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva, who currently chairs Asean and will lead the first Summit with the US. He is well qualified and eloquent on the international stage but also faces problems at home.

True, Thailand successfully hosted the Asean Summit last month. This made amends for the meeting earlier scheduled for April that was overrun by so-called "Red-Shirts" who support ousted Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra. But Thai politics still cast a shadow.

Cambodia's decision to appoint Mr Thaksin as economic adviser has strained relations between the neighbours. Envoys have been recalled and there is talk of closing the border between the two neighbours. Remember that recent spates over the ancient Preah Vihar temple led to gunshots between the armed forces.

This reflects poorly on Asean as a security community in which conflict between members is unimaginable. Regional hopes for seamless connectivity between countries are also undermined by border tensions.

The line between domestic and international issues is porous, sometimes non-existent. The focus on addressing global concerns can be bolstered or sapped by a domestic situation.

Often in Asia, meetings for leaders and ministers are measured not in concrete deliverables. Turning up is itself seen as the achievement. We can hope for more. But in the current trying circumstances that Mr Obama, Mr Abhisit and other leaders find themselves, just being present in mind and body is not to be taken for granted.

Simon Tay
About the author: 

Simon Tay is chairman of the Singapore Institute of International Affairs and Schwartz Fellow at the Asia Society New York.

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