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Firming up Asia-US ties

Updated On: Jun 17, 2009

THE world needs America. Numerous problems - from peace between Israel and Palestine to nuclear proliferation - cannot be resolved without the involvement of the United States.

But how should Asians engage the US when so much else demands its attention? What issues should be the focus? And since the region is not a single unit, how best can the US connect to Asia?

It could be that in a 'post-American world', to use the term by Newsweek's Fareed Zakaria, other countries will gain in influence at the expense of the US. But the US remains the lead actor for now. President Barack Obama, moreover, may give the US new impetus.

Mr Obama began conservatively by having Japanese Prime Minister Taro Aso visit him at the White House, emphasising a traditional alliance. Then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton pointedly made Asia her first official foreign destination. Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner recently visited China.

In the coming months, US-Asia engagement will take major steps forward. Things will come into focus when Mr Obama attends the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (Apec) Summit, to be held in Singapore in November.

Side trips to Japan, China and Indonesia are predicted. Side meetings at the Apec Summit will also be lined up. Come next month, Mrs Clinton will attend the Asean Regional Forum.

Engaging America must, however, go beyond smiles and handshakes. Many important issues require closer America-Asia cooperation. The G-20 process is emerging as the primary vehicle to coordinate responses to the global economic crisis, and Asian participation in this new setting bears emphasis.

On climate change, another issue that Mr Obama has pledged to address, the growing emissions from Asian giants must be part of the solution. Dealing with trouble spots like North Korea and Myanmar also require Asian participation.

The US-Asia partnership cannot be taken for granted. Emerging trends can drive them apart. In the wake of the economic crisis, American consumption is unlikely to return to its past levels. This can change the economic relationship of the last decade when Asians produced and saved, while Americans consumed and borrowed.

Many predict that the US will emerge from this economic crisis diminished in stature. Its resources will be stretched to maintain its political and security commitments in Asia. As others like China rise, Asia might face a future in which different countries contend for influence.

To counter these trends, both Asia and the US need to be convinced that their relationship is mutually beneficial. Mechanisms are also needed for US-Asia cooperation that are long-term in scope, not merely to respond to crises. How?

The Americans traditionally rely on allies in Asia: Japan, Australia, South Korea and, to a lesser extent, Thailand and the Philippines in South-east Asia. This will continue.

However, in terms of the Asian regionalism that has emerged, these countries have limited influence. The US recognises that working with China is key. Some therefore are pushing for a kind of G-2, whereby the present and emerging superpowers learn to work together.

Others argue there are limits to such a partnership. The US during the Bush years reached out to India as never before. Ties with Singapore too were upgraded with a free trade agreement and a strategic framework. And the Obama administration is probably leaning towards improving ties with Indonesia.

Beyond bilateral ties, thought is being given to how the US can engage with Asia as a whole. Washington is considering acceding to the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation, which Asean has championed as a regional standard for conduct. If it does, this would pave the way for closer ties not just with Asean but also the wider East Asia Summit (EAS).

Neither Asean nor the US has, however, decided if it wishes to have the US in the EAS. For Asians, US participation would change the nature of the summit. For the US, EAS membership would be an annual obligation taxing presidential attention without always producing results. Other possibilities are being considered. Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd has proposed a new Asia-Pacific community - with the US but without any special role for Asean. Some have doubted if it makes sense to start a new undertaking instead of making existing institutions better.

With the Apec Summit in November approaching, the new US administration will have to signal soon how it intends to engage Asia, and vice-versa.

The decisions both will have to make are important. Trends emerging in the economic crisis can devalue the US-Asia partnership and lead to a division across the Pacific.

Simon Tay
About the author: 

The writer is chairman of the Singapore Institute of International Affairs and currently the Schwartz Fellow at the Asia Society in the United States. Think-Tank is a weekly column rotated among eight leading figures in Singapore's tertiary and research institutions.

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