Commentary: Umesh Pandey
There was no bigger news in the world last week than the re-election of US President Barack Obama to a second term in office in what was considered one of the most hotly contested elections in the history of the nation.
The re-election of Mr Obama should be music to the ears of Asian nations from Japan to Iraq, and also great news for Asean members, whose profile has been on the rise ever since his first term when he stressed the American desire for greater engagement with the region.
Asean had been on the back burner during the previous Republican presidency. As a result, some countries cooled in their desire to be close to the world’s biggest superpower and gradually began to align themselves with the other emerging superpower, China.
The process of regaining confidence from the region by Washington has taken nearly four years, and thanks are due in no small part to Mr Obama’s able Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton. Her persistence, empathy and charm were the key drivers behind the build-up of new trust and confidence over the first term of the Obama administration.
Mrs Clinton, who has openly said that she would not return to the position if Mr Obama was elected for the second term, would be one of the biggest losses to the administration, and her forthright stand on issues that matter to Asia will be greatly missed.
Even in the last few weeks ahead of her departure, Mrs Clinton along with US Defence Secretary Leon Panetta will travel to Thailand, the first such delegation from the Pentagon since 2008, and then to Cambodia next week. The trip is part of Washington’s effort to help the Asean region recover its nerve after the fiasco of the July summit in Phnom Penh, when perceived pressure from China on the host country scuttled a joint communiqué calling for all parties in the South China Sea disputes to start behaving more responsibly.
The United States has also sought to reassure allies in the region that it will sustain and expand its military presence, through a much-discussed “pivot” toward Asia. But some partners question if the Americans have the financial means to back up the vow given fiscal pressures at home.
Apart from this Mr Obama is taking the bold step of making Southeast Asia the destination of his first post-election trip, including a visit to Myanmar, the first ever by a sitting US president. His trip will begin in Thailand this coming Saturday, followed by Cambodia on Nov 18 and Myanmar on Nov 19 — a signal in itself of the importance the new administration is giving to the region.
All this comes at a time when tensions are flaring in the traditional focal point of the United States — the Middle East, where US officials acknowledged last week that Iranian fighter jets intercepted an American surveillance drone over the Gulf and fired at it at least twice.
In any case, the continuity of the administration in the United States comes at no better time than this year as Asia’s superpower is undergoing its own changes. The change in China, which occurs once in a decade, began last week and will culminate when Xi Jinping takes the helm Communist Party in March 2013.
A change in leadership in China is unlikely to mean much change in policy, but at least it breaks the continuity of the previous administration and gives new leaders a chance to make their mark. A similar break in the US with the election of Republican candidate Mitt Romney could have spelt disaster for Asia, which wants to see a more balanced approach from the two superpowers that are in competition to gain favour in the region.
With so much goodwill having been built up over the previous term by the Obama administration, it would only be appropriate to appoint a capable person whose goals and aspirations are aligned with Asia’s as the successor to Mrs Clinton.
The name of Massachusetts senator and incumbent chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, John Kerry, has surfaced, and he would be an appropriate choice to continue the work of his predecessor.
Most countries might have their doubts about the continuity of US foreign policy of the US, and who’s to blame them, for the US has had a habit of changing policy in line with each change of administration. It would be best for the US to pursue foreign policies that remain intact no matter whether Democrats or Republicans control the White House, because such assurances will give other countries more to think before they make a 100% commitment to one particular superpower.
But as they say, no one can clap with one hand, and therefore it is necessary for Asia to take its interests in the long term into consideration and look at working with the Obama administration for the long-term benefit of the region.