Asia to be first destination for Obama after re-election

Updated On: Nov 15, 2012

US President Barack Obama will make a historic three-day trip to Asia starting on Sunday, 17 November, travelling to Myanmar, Cambodia and Thailand. Following his visit to Myanmar, the President will attend the East Asia Summit in Phnom Penh starting on Sunday, held in conjunction with the ASEAN Summit. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is also visiting the region, arriving in Singapore on Friday, 15 November.

Obama’s Historic Visit

The newly re-elected President Obama will make Asia his first overseas destination from 17-20 November, highlighting his desire to reorient American foreign policy more toward the Pacific during his second term. Notably, his visit will include trips to Myanmar and Cambodia, making him the first sitting American president to visit either country. While in the region, he will discuss a broad range of issues, including economics, security and human rights.

However, the visit will be brief as Mr. Obama faces pressing domestic concerns, such as tax and spending issues, as well as rebuilding his team for the next four years.

The most symbolic part of the trip will be the stop in Yangon, where Mr. Obama will meet with President Thein Sein and Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, the two driving forces behind Myanmar’s dramatic emergence from decades of military dictatorship. Mr. Obama met with Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi when she visited Washington in September, and he has eased sanctions to encourage political evolution in Myanmar.

Many perceive the Obama administration’s move to engage more with Asian countries, especially Myanmar, as a response to the rise of China. China was Myanmar’s main international patron during the final years of military rule there. Myanmar’s opening to the West comes amid a popular backlash in Myanmar against perceived excessive Chinese influence and its role in extracting natural resources.

However, Obama’s planned trip to Myanmar has drawn criticism from human rights advocates. They worry that a presidential visit to Myanmar in the midst of democratic reforms is premature given the on going ethnic violence and detention of political prisoners.

Likewise, some in Congress have expressed concern about Mr. Obama’s stop in Cambodia. They stress it should not be seen as condoning a harsh authoritarian government that has cracked down on dissidents. On 31 October, 12 members of Congress sent Mr. Obama a letter urging him to condemn human rights violations by the government of Prime Minister Hun Sen, who has held power for 27 years.

“This is an incredibly delicate process that’s still at a very early stage,” said Tom Malinowski, the Washington director of Human Rights Watch. “It would have been better, I think, to reserve some leverage before the incredibly difficult decisions that the government has yet to make.”

He added, “It would not be a good thing if the president leaves Burma and there are still political prisoners there.”

Others disagreed. “It’s a good time to show American support for what has taken place,” said Gordon Hein, vice president of the Asia Foundation, an NGO that is returning to Myanmar after 50 years. “It’s true there’s still unfinished business to be done in the reform process, but if one waited until every major issue was successfully resolved, that would be a long wait for any country.”

Similarly, Myanmar’s presidential office spokesman Major Zaw Htay says he believes the "support and encouragement by the US President and American people will strengthen the commitment of President Thein Sein's reform process to move forward without backtracking."

ASEAN Summit and East Asia Summit in Cambodia

Mr. Obama’s main purpose in travelling to Asia is to attend the 18-nation East Asia Summit. Observers expect a host of territorial rows will dominate the summit.

Before the East Asia Summit on Monday, leaders from the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) will meet for the ASEAN Summit on Sunday. ASEAN leaders have struggled to forge a united stance on China's claims to the South China Sea and some countries in the grouping are hoping for support from Mr. Obama.

"Maritime security issues will once again be front and centre," said Ian Storey, a regional security analyst with the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies in Singapore.

"Beijing's renewed assertiveness over its sovereignty claims has unnerved many countries in the Asia-Pacific region. They will be looking to the United States for strategic reassurance."

The Philippines and Vietnam have this year expressed growing concern at increasingly aggressive tactics by China in staking its claims to the South China Sea-- home to shipping lanes vital to global trade.

China insists it has sovereign rights to nearly all of the waters. However, ASEAN members such as the Philippines, Vietnam, Brunei, Malaysia and Taiwan, have competing claims to parts of the sea.

Mr Obama is expected to be "quite vocal" on the sea rows, said Pavin Chachavalpongpun of Kyoto University's Centre for Southeast Asian Studies. According to Storey, the President is likely to reiterate that the United States has a fundamental interest in freedom of navigation in the sea, while urging ASEAN and China to agree on a code of conduct for the area.

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton to visit Singapore

Meanwhile, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton will also be travelling in the region from 11-20 November, stopping in Australia, Singapore, Bangkok, Thailand, Myanmar and Cambodia. Mrs Clinton will be in Singapore on 16-17 November to meet with senior government officials, including Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong and Foreign Minister Kasiviswanathan Shanmugam, to discuss a wide range of issues. On 17 November, Secretary Clinton will deliver a major speech on U.S. economic engagement strategy at Singapore Management University, outlining the Obama Administration's plans for expanded economic and trade engagement in the Asia-Pacific region and beyond.

Report: Obama to visit Myanmar as Part of First Postelection Overseas Trip to Asia [The New York Times, 8 Nov 2012]

Report: Hillary Clinton’s upcoming travel [Still4Hill, 9 Nov 2012]

Report: Obama set to tackle sea rows at Asia summit [Channel News Asia, 15 Nov 2012]