Obama begins Asian pivot to challenge China

The political centrepiece of the trip is the visit to strategically placed Myanmar

President Barack Obama has opened a three-country post-election swing through Southeast Asia, designed to highlight the growing importance of the region for US foreign policy and respond to China’s rising influence. After a flight from Washington, Obama disembarked at the Bangkok airport on Sunday and headed straight to a series of cultural visits and meetings with leaders in Thailand, one of the United States’ oldest and closest allies in the region. From here, he makes a historic visit to Myanmar and then to Cambodia.

 US President Barack Obama (centre) joins hands with leaders of ASEAN countries during the ASEAN Summit at the Peace Palace in Phnom Penh on Monday. REUTERSThe four-day trip through China’s backyard is fraught with geopolitical implications. It comes after a campaign in which Obama talked about how tough he has been with Beijing. While the White House has softened the language since the election, his decision to make Asia his first destination after winning a second term underscores his determination to pivot US foreign policy after a decade of war in Iraq and Afghanistan toward the economic and political future of the Pacific.

“The president’s trip marks the beginning of the next phase of our rebalancing effort,” Thomas E Donilon, the president’s national security adviser, said in a speech at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. “When the president says the US will play a larger and long-term role in the region, we intend to execute on that commitment.”

But even as he tries to de-emphasise the centrality of the Middle East, the region has once again demanded his time and attention with the outbreak of fighting in Gaza. As he prepared for his Asia jaunt, Obama was drawn into the latest conflict between Israel and Hamas, working the phones with the leaders of Israel, Egypt and Turkey.

Obama headed from the Bangkok airport to the Wat Pho Royal monastery, one of the country’s most revered cultural outposts, and took in the giant reclining Buddha, accompanied by secretary of state Hillary Clinton. He then headed to Siriraj hospital to pay respects to King Bhumibol Aduly-adej, the 84-year-old monarch who has been ailing.

From there, the president planned to head to the government house to meet with prime minister Yingluck Shinawatra, the sister of former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who was deposed in a military coup in 2006 and fled the country. Yingluck, who assumed office last year, planned to join Obama for a joint session with reporters and then host the president for dinner.

Obama plans to leave Monday morning for Myanmar, where he will stay on the ground for about six hours, and then fly on to Cambodia, where he will participate in meetings with leaders from across the region. He will be the first sitting US president to visit either country.

Human rights activists have criticised the trip since all three countries to various degrees have records of repression. For Obama, the challenge of the trip will be finding a way to nudge those governments toward greater freedom while cementing stronger relations.

Political centrepiece

The political centrepiece of the trip is the visit to Myanmar, which is considered strategic in the reorientation to Asia not only because of its location bordering China, but because its leaders have signalled their pique with China’s relentless search for natural resources and their willingness to tilt toward the west as a way of counterbalancing their imposing neighbour. In Beijing, where Xi Jinping has just been installed as the new leader in a once-a-decade transition, the trip is seen as part of a continuing challenge to China’s rise. The government interprets the United States’ attention to the region, including the deployment of more troops and battleships, as an effort to encircle China.

“The pivot is a very stupid choice,” said Jin Canrong, a professor at the School of International Studies at Renmin University in Beijing. “The US has achieved nothing and only annoyed China. China can’t be contained.” On China's periphery, where its rapid military modernisation and territorial claims in resource-rich seas are viewed with nervousness, Obama’s pivot is mostly welcomed. Many in the region, however, worry about whether the US has the money and will to follow through. There is also a question over how much impact the US can have, regardless of its commitment. China has the edge in trade; every country in the region except the Philippines does more business with China than with the United States.

In Yangon, Obama will meet with president Thein Sein, a former general who has led Myanmar’s opening, releasing many political prisoners and freeing the long-persecuted opposition to run for seats in Parliament. The president will also meet with Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, the Nobel laureate who emerged from years of house arrest to win one of those seats.

But while Obama wraps himself in the evolving success story — the United States bet that it was worth easing sanctions early on as an encouragement to reformers -- some human rights activists deemed the visit a premature vanity exercise. They pointed to the continued detention of some political prisoners, a recent sectarian conflict they believe the government has done too little to stop, and the Myanmar military’s war with ethnic rebels. Among those who initially urged against the trip, activists in the United States said, was Aung San Suu Kyi.

“It rewards Burma for things they’ve already been rewarded for, and it wastes enormous political capital which could have been saved up and used to reward future events,” said John Sifton Asia advocacy director for Human Rights Watch, using the former name for Myanmar. He added that Obama should now leverage the trip by insisting on tangible action like release of the remaining political prisoners.

Donilon said the trip would help ‘lock in this path forward,’ but acknowledged risks. ‘We're not naive about this,’ he said. “We absolutely are aware of the dangers of backsliding! And if that takes place, we’ll respond accordingly. But this really is a moment, that we didn't want to miss.”

In Myanmar, the visit is seen as a validation of the move from military rule. “Obama's visit is the first after he was re-elected,” said Hta'y Oo, vice chairman of the governing Union Solidarity and Development Party. “It means he takes our country seriously.” But he stressed that change was coming from within, not from the United States.

A leading international rights group accused Myanmar security forces of supporting some of the anti-Muslim violence that forced 35,000 people from torched homes last month. Human Rights Watch said soldiers in some parts of the western state of Rakhine tried to stop Buddhist attacks and protect Muslim civilians, known as Rohingya. But the group said the government needs to do much more to protect the stateless minority, who are denied citizenship because they are considered foreigners from Bangladesh.

The New York-based rights group also released new satellite imagery detailing the extensive destruction of several Muslim areas, including a village attacked by Buddhist mobs armed with spears, bows and arrows, where adults were beheaded and women and children killed.

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