Monday, October 27, 2008

USA elections: Impact on Southeast Asia

Ashwini Devare, Contributor, Singapore

The fine sand is accelerating through the hourglass as the U.S. presidential race enters into the homestretch. With both candidates locked in a dead heat, the drama and ballyhoo in the world's largest economy has the rest of the world in a state of heightened anticipation.

Against the backdrop of what is being termed as the biggest financial crisis since the Great Depression, the denouement of the race is of utmost significance. Irrespective of the theory of decoupling, what transpires in the United States will have far-reaching implications for the rest of the world, including Southeast Asia.

With a population of about 560 million, Southeast Asia is a kaleidoscope of cultures and ethnicities, encompassing communist Vietnam to capitalist Singapore. Over the past few years, the region has emerged as a vibrant and dynamic hub, bursting with trade and business activity.

As of 2006, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) had a combined gross domestic product of over US$1,100 billion and a total trade of about US$1,400 billion. With the emergence of ASEAN as an important political and economic body on the world stage, there are many expectations and much optimism about furthering the U.S.-ASEAN relationship and taking it to the next level.

This is something that U.S. President George W. Bush has failed to do during his eight-year term, says Professor T. J Pempel, professor of political science at the University of California at Berkeley. Bush bungled Asia, he says. "The United States under George Bush has seen a decline and demise in its importance in Asia," Pempel argues. "Under Bush's reign, the relationship with Southeast Asia was marginalized as U.S. foreign policy became driven by Iraq, Afghanistan and dominated by ideology. It is the excessive militarization of U.S. foreign policy that has hurt relations."

Over the last four decades, the United States has enjoyed a long, undisputable economic and military position in Asia. During the Cold War, Asia was the arc of stability for its sphere of influence and a bulwark against communism which the United States reinforced through a series of strategic and regional alliances. Security became the paramount geopolitical interest for it under its Cold War containment policy.

It was in 1967, at the height of the Cold War when the Vietnam War was raging, that ASEAN was conceived and founded. The emergence of a pro-western grouping in Southeast Asia was a welcome development for the United States which extended its full support to the newly formed entity.

Following the end of the Cold War in 1991, the U.S.-Southeast Asian economic relationship blossomed as the tiger economies across the region boomed. Relatively free from military conflict, Southeast Asia saw an extraordinary transformation through the 1970s and 1980s on the back of market reforms and export-led growth.

Early fissures began to appear in the relationship during the Asian Financial Crisis of 1997 to 1998 when the United States was perceived as insensitive in its perception and handling of the crisis. Post 9/11, the its preoccupation with fighting terrorism resulted in a reduced focus on Southeast Asia. U.S.-ASEAN relations took a dip when U.S. Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice skipped the ASEAN Regional Forum three years ago. While Myanmar remains an occasional flashpoint that attracts U.S. attention, by and large it has became more remote and removed from the region.

Professor Pempel says this so-called indifference has actually been a blessing in disguise for Southeast Asia. Far from suffering from a lack of U.S. attention, the region has in fact thrived, with new bilateral and multilateral alliances sprouting right in its own backyard.

Southeast Asia has proactively courted economic giants China and India, accelerating trade and business ties with both. ASEAN has concluded a plethora of free trade agreements, including those with China, Japan, South Korea, India, Australia and New Zealand, and the region is becoming more interlinked than ever before.

Experts also point to the fact that the United States is no longer part of many of the important regional groupings in Asia. The Shanghai Cooperation Organization which includes China and Russia was started in 2001 and does not include it; ASEAN+3 includes the 10 Southeast Asian nations plus Japan, China and Korea. The East Asia Summit is another regional forum which began in 2005 and includes ASEAN, China, Japan, Korea, India, Australia and New Zealand.

Experts say the U.S. disinterest in Southeast Asia has paved the way for the other economic juggernaut to spread its footprint across the region. Dr. Kesavapany, Director of the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies in Singapore says: "It is not so much the decline of USA as the relative rise of China in economic and soft power terms, as well as the astute Chinese diplomacy and its charm offensive in Southeast Asia. The United States also suffered from negative international Muslim sentiments arising from the conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq."

But Dr. Kesavapany adds it is also up to ASEAN to enhance ties with the United States. "There is a long queue of countries and regions wanting the attention of the new U.S. Administration which hopefully will not be distracted by new crises, such as any with N. Korea, Iran or Russia. Southeast Asia is not a front-burner issue for the USA. ASEAN should also creatively and proactively suggest some areas where USA and ASEAN can cooperate closely -- in energy or climate change, for example."

The U.S. diminishing interest in Southeast Asia coincides with its falling status in the region. According to the 2007 Pew Global Attitudes survey published by the Washington, DC-based think tank in which over 47 countries are surveyed, anti-Americanism is as extensive as it has been for the past five years. The report shows that the U.S. image has taken a battering in most Muslim countries in the Middle East and Asia. In Indonesia, for example, the report points out positive opinions of Americans have fallen from 65% in 2002 to 42% last year.

The United States cannot afford to neglect one of the world's most dynamic areas. The new administration will have to revisit its policy toward Asia and resurrecting its image will certainly have to be top priority. Which candidate will have better synergy with this part of the world is a question on the minds of many Asians these days, as the presidential blitzkrieg roars to the finish line. Both candidates have a connection with Asia.

Senator McCain was a naval pilot during the Vietnam War who spent five years imprisoned in Hanoi. As a senator he consistently pushed for improved relations between the United States and Vietnam. Both McCain and Obama have pledged to reinvigorate alliances in Asia and with ASEAN.

Some believe if Senator Obama becomes president, he will be more sensitive to Southeast Asia, particularly Indonesia. The importance of Indonesia, the fourth most populous country in the world and the biggest in Southeast Asia, cannot be eschewed and there is a view that Senator Obama is better positioned to appreciate its diversity.

An archipelago made up of over 17,000 islands stretching across some 5,000 kilometers, Indonesia is a country most Americans have little knowledge of and if not for Obama, would have continued to escape its radar completely. By dint of an old childhood connection, he shone a spotlight on the country during the campaign.

As a young boy, the democratic presidential nominee spent a few years in Jakarta attending local schools. This childhood connection was undoubtedly brief, but it still remains an irrevocable piece of his early life. An Indonesian stepfather, Indonesian half-sister and the fact that his white American mother went on to study anthropology, focusing on the traditional artisan culture of Indonesia, is what gave the Obama factor an exotic appeal in the early days of the campaign, when Obamamania engulfed the United States like a huge tidal wave.

In fact, Obama has said his early exposure to multiethnic cultures and societies such as Indonesia and Hawaii played a key role in shaping his political and social outlook in the years to come.

The current global financial maelstrom has sucked Southeast Asia right in, arguably mitigating the decoupling theory. The destinies of the United States and ASEAN countries remain closely intertwined, whether they like it or not.

It remains one of ASEAN's biggest export markets and the largest foreign investor in the region. It cannot afford to turn its back to Southeast Asia, a region uniquely complex and diverse.

Politics is taking center stage in Thailand and Malaysia, Vietnam is battling double-digit inflation, and Myanmar is a hotbed of unpredictability. Thailand's southern provinces remain highly inflammable and Indonesia is vulnerable to terror elements as is the Philippines. Singapore is on the brink of a technical recession with exports in August falling the most in 20 months. Slowing economic growth and high inflation are a lethal combination, the spectre of which could haunt many as the economic malaise continues to spread.

At this very critical juncture, having a U.S. president who is committed to Southeast Asia is not merely wishful thinking, but a sine qua non.

SOURCE: USA elections: Impact on Southeast Asia
Jakarta Post, Indonesia