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Are you ready to listen?

Updated On: Feb 16, 2009

Weekend TODAY
14-15 Feb 2009

MRS Hillary Clinton’s decision to visit Asia as her first trip abroad as US Secretary of State is welcome.

Her choice recognises the new importance of Asia to the United States at this time of global turmoil. It counters feelings that her predecessor Condoleezza Rice focused more on Europe. It balances the visit to Europe by US Vice-President Joe Biden and the new security team.

There have no doubt been tussles of diplomatic nicety about who to visit first. In the end, Mrs Clinton will, from Sunday through Feb 22, make stops in Japan, Indonesia and South Korea, before ending with China.

The inclusion of Indonesia surprised some. But to my mind, it is a great opportunity to improve ties bilaterally with the largest Muslim country in the world and an emerging democracy in Asia. This is not to mention that Indonesians have claimed US President Barack Obama as one of their own and will no doubt warmly welcome the early attention of his administration.

Visiting Indonesia can also mark Mrs Clinton’s start to improve links with the Association of South-east Asian Nations (Asean). The grouping of 10 middle and smaller states has been a central player in intra-Asian regionalism and is building an economic community of 500 million people.

But Asean has been some overlooked by the former administration with Dr Rice skipping some key meetings and former President George W Bush promising and then breaking a date for an Asean-US Summit.

As for China, even if it is last of the four stops, no one should doubt that this is emerging as the key relationship in Asia for the US. From currency and the economic turmoil to climate change, cooperation between the US and China will be critical if we are to find global solutions that can work.

Currency had been an ongoing source of friction between the Chinese and the Bush administration. Mrs Clinton may want to start on something different, like climate change — an issue that is also a priority for the Obama administration.

This topic, too, can be contentious if the US tries to impose carbon limits on China or threatens trade sanctions against imports from the mainland. But in areas like energy efficiency and infrastructure, there is low-hanging fruit that both sides can reach for.

The Asia Society, where Mrs Clinton spoke on Friday, just before she left for Asia, has released a report that outlines many areas for potential cooperation in climate change that can benefit both countries and help the global response.

What else is likely to arise on this Asian trip? Of course there are Asian hotspots from North Korea to Myanmar, to Tibet and the cross-Straits issues. All these and more can occupy Mrs Clinton’s attention, as they have her predecessors.

But one major difference where Mrs Clinton can leave her mark is to elevate discussions beyond these bilateral issues and hotspots. Many of today’s global priorities need Asia’s cooperation. Having decided to make her first travel abroad to Asia, Mrs Clinton can reach out to Asians on such global issues, like climate change and the global economy finance.

In reaching out, Mrs Clinton may also bring a first taste of Mr Obama’s promise to be more multilateral. Asians will notice the difference if she is prepared to listen to their perspectives and concerns, rather than aggressively pushing a Madein- America agenda.

If Mrs Clinton is willing to listen, she will note the growing nervousness in Asia as the region faces the looming economic uncertainties. China’s rapid fall in imports and exports and increasingly joblessness. South Korea going into recession with perhaps a 2-per-cent contraction next year. Japan’s rapid shrinking as even giants like Toyota and Nissan report losses. Indonesia’s shaky currency as it enters an election year.

All these and other signs will help signal that Asia is still deeply entwined with the US economy.

Mrs Clinton and the accompanying American media can hopefully recognise that many concerns and miseries are shared across the Pacific, rather than anyone profiting from American problems.

And if she is willing to listen in this way, Mrs Clinton would be well placed to help Asians consider their own emerging role to work alongside America.

Finally, this trip can help Mrs Clinton and the Obama administration take a first step towards reviving the Asia-Pacific Economic cooperation (Apec) forum as a means of engaging countries across the pacific. The grouping started strongly when another Clinton was President but has lost momentum in recent years.

The US will chair the group in 2011, after Singapore this year and Japan in 2010. President Obama will be expected to go to the Apec Summit in Singapore and will thus venture to Asia by the end of the year.

Secretary of State Clinton will do well to looking beyond this first trip and the four countries she will visit, and prepare the ground for that. If so, she may well find Apec again useful as a broader mechanism to engage Asians.

Simon Tay
About the author: 

The writer is Schwartz Fellow at the Asia Society in the USA for 2009 and chairman of the Singapore Institute of International Affairs.


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