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Obama Speech Sees Mixed Reaction on US Momentum in Southeast Asia


US President Barack Obama arrives for the East Asian Summit Plenary Session at the Peace Palace in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, November 20, 2012.

US President Barack Obama arrives for the East Asian Summit Plenary Session at the Peace Palace in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, November 20, 2012.

US President Barack Obama’s Southeast Asia-only trip in 2012 marked a high point in the US prioritization of the region. But there has been a drop in the presence of high-level US diplomats since then, and in his recent State of the Union speech, Obama spoke of Asia only rarely.

Some analysts say that could mean the US won’t be able to sustain its so-called “pivot to Asia.”

In one of those mentions, Obama said the US “will continue to focus on the Asia-Pacific, where we support our allies, shape a future of greater security and prosperity and extend a hand to those devastated by disaster, as we did in the Philippines.”

There were not that many mentions of Asia in the speech, says Ernie Bower, senior advisor and chair for the Southeast Asia Studies at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, DC.

“He missed the opportunity to tell Americans why Asia is important to us, to our economic prosperity, to our jobs, to our ability to innovate and help drive the integration of global markets, to our security,” Bower told VOA Khmer in a recent interview.

Since taking office, Obama has often touted his diplomatic pivot—generally seen as a strategic refocusing on the region to counter China’s growing influence there. His 2012 visit to Southeast Asia included historic trips to Burma and Cambodia, where he attended the Asean Summit. But the president canceled a Southeast Asia trip in October due to the government shutdown.

U.S. President Barack Obama (C) participates in a family photo of ASEAN leaders during the ASEAN Summit at the Peace Palace in Phnom Penh November 19, 2012. With Obama are (L-R) Thailand's Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra, Vietnam's Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung, Cambodia's Prime Minister Hun Sen and Brunei's Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah. REUTERS/Jason Reed

U.S. President Barack Obama (C) participates in a family photo of ASEAN leaders during the ASEAN Summit at the Peace Palace in Phnom Penh November 19, 2012. With Obama are (L-R) Thailand's Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra, Vietnam's Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung, Cambodia's Prime Minister Hun Sen and Brunei's Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah. REUTERS/Jason Reed

Meanwhile, Burma is holding its first Asean chairmanship, Thailand is facing a political crisis, Indonesia is changing leaders, and Cambodia remains mired in a post-election deadlock. And all this as China considers expanding its air defense zone over the contentious South China Sea.

Bower said October’s trip cancelation, along with Obama’s quieting of rhetoric on Asia, has not reassured partners in the region.

“I am concerned on our behalf that unless we are engaged at that level, we will lose our competitive edge,” he said. “We will lose our diplomatic weight and that will come to some cost to American interest over time.”

Aaron Connelly, an analyst at the Albright Stonebridge Group in Washington, says Obama may have set expectations too high for Southeast Asia, only to be constrained by domestic politics. But Connelly says actual engagement activities at the bureaucratic and grassroots levels have increased in the region.

“The difference now is that we are seeing a much broader focus and deeper focus at the same time,” he said. “And that’s really unprecedented.”

U.S. President Barack Obama tours the Shwedagon Pagoda with Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton in Rangoon, Burma, Monday, Nov. 19, 2012.

U.S. President Barack Obama tours the Shwedagon Pagoda with Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton in Rangoon, Burma, Monday, Nov. 19, 2012.

Speaking at the National Press Club in Washington last week, Daniel Russel, Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs at the US State Department, said the US remains strongly committed to the region not only for security interests.

“My conviction and my experience is that our ongoing rebalance strategy that dates back to January of 2009 is broad and deep and encompasses not just regional security, but also, as I mentioned, economic prosperity, people-to-people ties,” he said.

That includes the president’s Young Southeast Asian Leaders Initiative, which was announced in December to empower the next generation of leaders in Southeast Asia, where 65 percent of the population is under 35.

Ou Virak, president of the Cambodian Center for Human Rights, says that kind of initiative would be welcome in Cambodia. But following the State of the Union speech, he too worried about a missed opportunity to capitalize on the region’s demographic change, including in Cambodia, which he says now holds “historic” potential for democratic transition in the region.

“Because now across the whole region, only Cambodia is at a major political crossroads, where there is the opportunity to strengthen democracy,” he said. “So the US should pay close attention to Cambodia.”

He says he worries that growing Chinese influence will mean rising authoritarianism in Cambodia and the region in the coming years. So he hopes Obama will pay attention to Cambodia’s democratization potential.

Connelly says after a low travel year, Obama will likely not miss another chance at Asean meetings late this year. The White House has confirmed at least one Asia trip, planned for April.
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