Thursday, August 17, 2017

Mr President, it’s time to visit the rest of the region

On October 26, United States President Barack Obama welcomed his Indonesia counterpart, President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo, to the White House in Washington.

Photo: AFPPhoto: AFP

Since their two nations are the largest democracies in the Americas and Southeast Asia, respectively, many observers were surprised to learn that Jokowi is the first Indonesian leader to visit the US in over a decade.

Perhaps more surprisingly, given this region’s turbulent past and its current economic and strategic clout, is the way parts of Southeast Asia have been so rarely visited by American presidents.

Only after the turn of the millennium were four members of ASEAN visited for the first time, two of them within the past three years. And believe it or not, one is still awaiting its inaugural visit.

A popular quiz question in Bangkok pubs that nearly always stumps participants is to name the only country in ASEAN that no United States president has ever visited.

It’s not easy, but given a few minutes, canny punters are able to work out the answer by a process of elimination.

For starters, most people realise it cannot be such staunch US allies as Singapore, Thailand or the Philippines, because they receive multiple visits from almost all US presidents.

Likewise, Jokowi’s Indonesia is just too big and too important for Washington to cold-shoulder for very long, even given a post-9/11 unease about trips to Muslim-majority nations.

But then the elimination process starts to get a bit more difficult.

Take Malaysia, for instance. In the Cold War era, it was a bulwark against communism, and until today it retains strong military ties with the Pentagon and is America’s 10th-largest trading partner.

Yet after President Lyndon Johnson visited Kuala Lumpur back in 1966, Malaysia was avoided by subsequent US leaders for almost half a century until President Obama went there in April last year.

As for the apparent neglect of some of the region’s other nations, it can be simply put down to the fact that they only came into sovereign existence recently.

It was not until 1984, for instance, that tiny Brunei gained independence from Britain, so naturally its first visit came quite late.

And despite being a firm backer of the US, it only received that November 2000 visit because, in the dying days of his second term, Bill Clinton was obliged to attend an economic summit in Brunei.

So our elimination process now just leaves the so-called CLMV group – Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar and Vietnam, who are the youngest members of ASEAN.

They have each been historically troublesome for Washington and hence were long pencilled out of the itinerary when American presidents visited Asia.

As savvy quiz-meisters will have realised the member of this quartet that broke the pattern is none other than the former enemy, Vietnam, which though now unified, remains a staunchly communist, one-party state.

But my enemy’s enemy is my friend, and as both the US and Vietnam are wary of China’s rise, they have been drawing closer together - a process that began in earnest when Clinton visited Hanoi 15 years ago.

Seeking to temper Beijing’s sovereignty claims over the South China Sea, Clinton’s successor George Bush also visited Vietnam and Obama will likely follow suit next month.

In fact, it was the peripatetic Obama who knocked two other CLMV nations off the unvisited list when he went to Cambodia and Myanmar in 2012.

As the ASEAN chair, Cambodia could not be avoided, but Washington still maintained a hard line and did not offer the country’s veteran leader, Hun Sen, a reciprocal invitation to visit the White House.

Perhaps his longevity offends the US, but it is a curious omission given that Cambodia is a functioning multiparty democracy with a free market philosophy and arguably ASEAN’s freest media.

None of these things exist in China or Vietnam, yet the leaders of both those nations recently received red carpet welcomes at the White House.

Likewise, Obama’s visit to Myanmar, coming barely a year after President U Thein Sein had initiated landmark reforms, was deemed premature by many, including Daw Aung San Suu Kyi.

But Obama was determined and history has shown he was right to come here.

Which leaves us with Laos – the correct answer to our pub quiz question.

But an even more puzzling question is why Laos, a strategically positioned, resource-rich nation, has neither received a presidential visit nor been paid more than minimal attention by Washington.

It is almost as if the US has given up in the face of massive competition from China, Vietnam, Japan and Thailand.

Admittedly, it would be difficult to match the influence of Beijing, which poured US$5.1 billion into Laos last year, more even than traditional top investors Thailand and Vietnam.

And Beijing’s figure does not include a $7.2 billion loan for a high-speed rail link from Kunming to Vientiane and on to Thailand, the construction of which is slated to begin this year.

Compared to all this, the US has done little recently in Laos aside from building a big new embassy in Vientiane full of spooks.

Some observers had nursed hopes that Obama might reverse the inaction by making a side trip to Laos when he visits the Philippines and Malaysia next month, but that’s now off the cards.

So it seems his last chance will come next year when Laos assumes the ASEAN chair and hosts the East Asian Summit, which normally includes the US president.

It would give Obama a chance to exert some gentle pressure on the Lao regime to fight endemic corruption, improve human rights and open up the media.

And as an added fillip, he’d complete the ASEAN circuit and render the pub question redundant.