Obama’s re-election is already old news and the calls of secession are becoming yesterday’s cocktail stories, but the big issue is that his first order of duty is his international tour to Southeast Asia to meet with ASEAN leaders on 18 November, and his historic visit to Burma (Myanmar). What does this mean, exactly? It means we should be pretty excited that this is another piece of evidence that this is the Pacific Century–especially with the Chinese handover of power from Hu Jintao to Xi Jinping as the new Chinese Communist Party Chief.
On election night, much of the expat community in Bangkok (American and non-American alike) all had drinks ready by 10:00am local time, fully-aware that if Obama won, we would be drunk just after noon to celebrate a collective sigh of relief, and if Romney were to bring in a new regime, we would poison our livers as he was very likely to bring the U.S. to a level of incompetence worse than George W. Bush years, especially with his stance on China. Worse, we were preparing for the American Exodus of those ready to move overseas instead of being stuck in the Holy Yeoman Empire of the Scum under Romney. To the collective relief of many, Obama was re-elected, and Khaosarn Road erupted into a celebration of ecstasy decadence. Now that that’s over, people are aware of two momentous and monumental changes that this month has brought to the region.
Let it be said that Obama’s internationalist outlook and upbringing (especially as a Third Culture Kid) are a complete contrast to Romney and George W. Bush–something that much of the world appreciates in spite of his track record being less than spotless. It’s a year where anyone but an internationalist will not survive the winds of change that have come in this year alone–Burma opening up and moving towards reintegrating itself onto the world stage, China’s new leadership, Japan and Korea fighting over some rocks in the Pacific, and much, much more.
For Obama to be going to Asia as his first international priority has everything to do with the above changes and wave of events in progress or about to occur. It would be ignoble to ignore the significance of the region even without these events and changes, and Obama is fully aware of this. Likewise, the Chinese leadership change is about as big as it can get out here–although not the edge-of-your-seat ride the U.S. presidential elections were, but significant enough to know that the world is dealing with a new generation that has yet to demonstrate its personality, the way Hu’s China showed a prosperous time and a very strong anti-corruption stance.
Strictly speaking, if passive international relations enthusiasts were to look at the trip in terms of signalling, here’s a few messages we can infer from Thailand, Burma, and Cambodia:
1) Thailand is the hub for many industries and activities in much of Pacific Asia–media, non-government organizations, and international government organizations all have a presence in Bangkok, so it’s an easy way to reach out to as many parties possible while on tour;
2) Creating a relationship on the ground instead of the sidelines sets several precedents: i) it encourages more active dialogue and involvement between Burma’s government and outsiders, something that has historically not been received well by the military junta, ii) it sets the tone for the American relationship with the “new” Burma, iii) it is an attempt to address the issue of the Muslim Rohingnya refugees with no status or citizenship and the Rakhine state;
3) Cambodia, in meeting with Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen just ahead of the East Asia Summit, to pay respects for the death of former King Sihanouk and to address Cambodia’s dismal record on human rights, especially as of lately with forced evictions and attacking dissenters.
To some Sinophiles, this is also an indirect way of hinting to China Obama’s assertiveness to manage China’s rise. Although the relationship has been strained according to some views, there’s a little more optimism post-elections now that actions speak louder than campaign words.
Asia-Pacific is a big priority for Obama–and for members of the Pacific community, we have high hopes for what this all could mean, domestically and internationally. At the moment, however, the South China Sea topic for ASEAN is going to be high on that agenda.
[Photo courtesy of Bangkok Post]