President Obama will make a whirlwind visit to Bangkok, Rangoon, and Phnom Penh from November 17–20. It will be the first time a sitting American leader has gone to Burma or Cambodia.
The stopover in the former Burmese capital has become the story of the trip, largely because there are misgivings about the astonishing speed of the reconciliation with the generals, who are very much in control of the impoverished nation. Also of concern is the visit to another hard-line regime, the one that runs Cambodia.
Despite these legitimate concerns, the main theme of the trip is that the White House is serious about the “pivot” to—or “rebalancing” with—Asia, code in either case for hedging against recent Chinese belligerence. That’s why members of the Politburo Standing Committee in the Chinese capital know they now have one more problem they cannot solve: a popular American president touring countries that once were under Beijing’s sway.
Many American security analysts are concerned that a dominant Chinese military will be able to overwhelm America’s armed forces. Therefore, analysts have been saying Obama’s new Asia policy is “unresourced,” that Washington cannot afford the military commitments made to East Asia in the last 12 months. Asian leaders are also worried—with justification—that the US will not be able to make good its various promises of additional soldiers, sailors, and pilots for the region.
The pivot, however, was always more than just a military initiative. True, last November the president announced his commitment to send Marines to Australia and the Pentagon unveiled its Air-Sea Battle concept. Yet at the same time, Obama also revealed the non-military side of the pivot, which included launching the nine-nation Trans-Pacific Partnership negotiations and the sending of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to Burma to explore ties with the troubled state.
Clinton is the one official who will be at the center of America’s interaction with the region this month. She will visit Perth, in western Australia, where she will meet up with Defense Secretary Leon Panetta for the annual Australia-US Ministerial Consultations with Foreign Minister Bob Carr and Defense Minister Stephen Smith. She will then travel to Adelaide as well as Singapore. From there, Clinton joins the president in Bangkok and travels with him to Rangoon and Phnom Penh. She will be at Obama’s side in the Cambodian capital when he attends the East Asia Summit and meets with the leaders of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations.
Washington, as evident from Clinton’s itinerary, is back in the center of East Asian diplomacy. It did not take an additional aircraft carrier or a wing of F-22s. All that was required was a series of short trips to the region by a handful of Americans. In Asia, nations are looking to Washington, and it is a coalition of countries that will be the real foundation for security there. The effort to stitch that together is the real pivot, an attempt to build the diplomatic and trade interactions that will unite the region and avoid the conflict that all fear.
The US needs to commit more forces to the region, but at least from the perspective of this month, the administration’s pivot to Asia looks fully resourced.
Photo Credit: Gobierno de Chile