U.S. President Barack Obama is returning to Asia for his first overseas trip since winning re-election. He will attend, for the second consecutive year, the East Asia Summit which is viewed by the U.S. as the emerging eminent multilateral forum for regional leaders from 17 other states to discuss salient strategic and security issues. The summit is always hosted by the country that holds the rotating chair of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, this year Cambodia. Before going to Phnom Penh, Obama will first visit Thailand, and then Burma/Myanmar. Hillary Clinton and Leon Panetta, Secretaries of State and Defense, are already out in the region having just concluded the annual AUSMIN talks in Australia on the U.S.-Australia alliance. This year’s joint AUSMIN statement is far-reaching and comprehensive and covers the breadth and depth of the solid bilateral relationship that Australia and the United States share on issues such as regional maritime security concerns, Afghanistan, Iran, and economics and trade, including the evolving Trans-Pacific Partnership trade negotiations. In addition, the U.S. and Australia agreed “to position two space situational awareness by placing two key U.S. space systems in Australia.” National Security Adviser Tom Donilon speaking at CSIS this week referenced President Obama’s speech last year to the Australian parliament as a reference point for U.S. policy towards the Asia-Pacific where Obama pledged to uphold and preserve the current international order based upon the rule of law, freedom of commerce and navigation and peaceful resolution of disputes. The fact that Australia and South Korea have been elected as non-permanent members of the UN Security Council for 2013-14 is no doubt welcome news from the perspective of the United States.
After Australia, Panetta went to Thailand, a country that is considered the oldest ally of the U.S. in Asia, dating back to the Treaty of Amity and Commerce signed in 1833. Of the five defense treaties that the United States has in Asia, the treaty with Thailand sometimes goes under the radar when compared with Japan, South Korea, Australia, and the Philippines. In 2004, President George W. Bush designated Thailand a major non-NATO ally and the joint U.S.-Thai military exercise, Cobra Gold, is one of the largest multilateral military exercises in the world. U.S. relations with Thailand have warmed since the August 2011 general election which was won by Yingluck Shinawatra, younger sister of former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who was removed from power in a coup in 2006. The U.S. and Thailand held Defense Strategic Talks in October, and Panetta’s visit is viewed as an opportunity to upgrade the alliance to meet the demands of the 21st century as outlined in the Joint Vision Statement. This statement highlights regional security in Southeast Asia, stability in the wider Asia-Pacific region and beyond, U.S.-Thai bilateral and multilateral interoperability, and building and sustaining bilateral military-to-military relationships. Going forward it is prudent to expect increased U.S.-Thai alignment on humanitarian and disaster relief operations supplemented by more frequent U.S. navy port calls and visits, along with other areas of cooperation. President Obama’s visit is designed to help affirm the democratic process within Thailand and to place the spotlight on another U.S. ally in the region. Ben Rhodes, Deputy National Security Advisor, explained that “We’re going to Thailand because our alliances in the region are the cornerstone of our engagement there, and Thailand has been a longstanding and close ally of the United States. This is an opportunity to reaffirm this relationship.”
Obama’s trip to Burma has received some mixed reaction here in Washington, D.C. with some asking if this is too much too soon. Donilon and Rhodes both explained that the U.S. is prepared to match democratic reform and openness within Burma “action for action.” On Friday, the State Department announced the lifting of the import ban on imports from Burma, with the exception of jadeite and rubies. Donilon explained the situation thus: “the president is endorsing and supporting the reforms under way, giving momentum to reformers and promoting continued progress.” Tantalizing comparisons have been suggested that if somehow North Korea were to abide by its commitments to the joint statement of the Six-Party Talks of September 2005, then it too could reap many of the same positive endorsements and support from the international community that Burma is currently experiencing.
What is clear is that reelected President Obama is determined to remain engaged and focused upon the Asia-Pacific region which in the words of this administration is absolutely vital to the economic and national security interests of the United States. Looking ahead for this administration, the Trans-Pacific Partnership negotiations will continue to be focal point, with strong emphasis upon getting Japan and South Korea to join. President Obama will continue to engage in the annual EAS and the United States will continue to engage in more multilateral regional diplomacy and engagement which is a positive sign for all.