The RSIS Centre for Non-Traditional Security (NTS) Studies' Blog

Obama in Asia: Has the U.S. Got It Right This Time?

Posted in NTS Plus by NTSblog on November 16, 2009

Obama in Asia:  Has the U.S. Got It Right This Time?

By Mely Caballero-Anthony

As Asia prepares to welcome US President Barack Obama to his first official visit to the region since coming into office, a key question that interests many security analysts is whether America has finally got the Asian story right? President Obama’s much anticipated attendance at the 2009 Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) meeting hosted by Singapore comes at a significant time when Asia is perhaps at its most exciting yet challenging period in history.

From the much hyped about idea of a resurging Asia, brought on by China and India’s impressive economic growth despite the recent global economic crisis, to the proliferation of Asian-centred multilateral institutions—the calls for Washington to be more engaged in the region is gaining more resonance.  In a recently released report by the US Council on Foreign Relations, entitled “ The United States in the New Asia”, the authors argued that the US needs to define a new role for itself in a changing Asia. A critical element in this broad agenda is for the US to make its presence clearly felt in the region’s key multilateral institutions like ASEAN, Asean plus Three (APT), the East Asia Summit and the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF).

To its credit, the new US administration is already sending the right signals. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s attendance at this year’s ARF meeting significantly made up for US absences in the past. More important also is the US signing of ASEAN’s Treaty of Amity and Cooperation (TAC) after several years of dithering which reflected a positively nuanced stance on ASEAN-led, albeit wider Asian multilateral frameworks like the East Asia Summit.

As Washington carefully calibrates its new role in a changing Asia, much can actually be learnt from the less celebrated but nonetheless important US contribution in responding to a series of devastating transnational threats facing the region. The visible role that US played in providing rapid assistance and relief to victims of the catastrophic 2005 tsunami and the 2008 Cyclone Nargis in Myanmar have demonstrated a willingness by Washington to act when urgent multilateral aid is required. Equally critical is the US role in providing financial and much need technical assistance in Asia’s fight against public health threats brought on pandemics like the avian (H5n1) and the H1N1 virus.

As Asia copes with a range of complex non-traditional security threats which are transnational, including energy security and climate change, Washington can certainly do more to enhance international cooperation in this area if its policies and aid programmes are integrated within the regional framework of ASEAN, and wider ARF and the EAS arrangements.  Since most of U.S. assistance appears to be conducted at the bilateral level, hence the impression that the U.S. is not doing enough, it is now time for Washington to weave these engagements into the more open and inclusive multilateral settings that many Asian countries are more comfortable with. The intention is not necessarily to replace current bilateral security arrangements but to complement these with multilateral ones.

The NTS agenda can therefore be a good platform to enhance US-Asia security cooperation which cuts across other areas in building cooperation—political, economic, technological, etc. In the area of climate change, for instance, while negotiations for a post-Kyoto protocol are expected to be long and ardous and with no immediate breakthrough expected in the Copenhagen talks in December, the US can certainly do more by increasing investments and providing support in green technology.

As a preponderant power, the U.S. needs to be part of the solution to many global challenges which are not limited only to the war against terrorism and nuclear proliferation.  Climate change, energy security, pandemics—these are areas where the region, like the rest of the world, expects the U.S. to lead.


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