Friday 08 Oct 2021 | 12:47 | SYDNEY
Friday 08 Oct 2021 | 12:47 | SYDNEY

AP community: America strong hand


Graeme Dobell

9 November 2009 14:52

Other items in this Asia Pacific community series: Graeme's analysis of the APc  concept paper; the text of the paper; and Graeme's thoughts on Japan.

Barack Obama is coming to Asia with strong cards to play in the dialogue on an Asia Pacific community. Look beyond the economic woes afflicting the US and the inevitable domestic damage to Obama’s popularity heading to the end of his first year as president. In much of Asia, Obama is still magic — I loved this piece on how the Japanese have turned ’obamu’ into a verb denoting optimism. 

Obama's ability to alter the terms of the game in Asia is most on display in South East Asia.The ASEANs have been stroked. Hillary Clinton made a point of flying to Indonesia on her first swing through Asia. The Secretary of State got  back for the annual regional talkfest hosted by the ASEAN Foreign Ministers (laying to rest another verb, 'to condi' — derived from Condoleezza — which meant 'to skip ASEAN'). Hillary crowned it all by swiftly signing the ASEAN Treaty of Amity and Cooperation.

Signing the TAC opens the way to talk. The US has paid the symbolic price set by ASEAN for a future seat at the East Asia Summit.

Now the US is also talking to Burma, marking a change in the tone if not the content of the approach to the Generals. Kurt Campbell's visit to Burma is the highest level contact between the two governments for more than a decade. And it means the US is now able to sit in the same room as Burma — a handy change if the Asian community/Community process is built on the East Asia Summit.

Signing the ASEAN Treaty of Amity also means the US can engage on the security dimensions of the community discussion. Washington can even consider a structure based on the East Asia Summit. To give an old US metaphor an extra layer: the alliance hub-and-spokes could support a new community umbrella.

Obama will get a further chance to charm the ASEANs at the APEC summit in Singapore. He and the ASEAN leaders are to have a 90-minute summit on 15 November at the Shangri-La Hotel. And Obama will invite the ASEANs to a follow-up summit in Washington next year. That really is talking to Burma, even if done with an ASEAN cover.

All this US movement is good news for Kevin Rudd. Obama is heading into territory that Rudd started exploring — bravely/recklessly — last year. Some in ASEAN have responded positively to Rudd's effort to give 'a new impetus to the idea of shaping the regional architecture through regionwide discussions at the highest level.' The praise is from Indonesia’s Jusuf Wanandi in a piece he wrote back in February.

Wanandi reflected the consensus that the region will not attempt 'a totally new architecture', but it will consolidate existing institutions. The fascinating point is to read Wanandi's lament that ASEAN is not really up to the job: 'ASEAN's limited cohesion has become a limiting factor. Many question if ASEAN can really get its act together to face future challenges (global or regional).' That is probably far from a majority view in ASEAN, but aving remade itself as a democracy, Indonesia is prepared to think about remaking ASEAN's role.

Jakarta's ability to think new thoughts about ASEAN opens the way for the US to pose its own set of questions. Hillary Clinton said signing the TAC was evidence of the US 'smart power'. The real smarts in this is that the US enhances its ability to influence the emerging game or even act as a game changer.

Photo by Flickr user Rambis, used under a Creative Commons license.