Obama's Quite Pointless ASEAN [Mis]Adventures

♠ Posted by Emmanuel in , at 11/16/2009 04:37:00 PM
And so it has come to pass: the American president made his way to Singapore in order to enlighten its leaders in the ways of peace, freedom, and democracy. However, things haven't gone as convincingly as they could've been IMHO. Let's go about things in order.

First was Obama getting together with the heads of the ASEAN member countries, including Thein Sein of Myanmar--the man chosen by the military junta to be its prime minister. This meeting provided the US with an opportunity to reaffirm its joining of the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation (TAC)--which it signed on to rather late but did so anyway during the Obama administration. Somewhat expected is US approval of ASEAN's efforts to establish a human rights body in the region. Again, not all members are participating but the US views it as a welcome move and invites the organization to visit America to get better ideas about this process. Here are some choice quotes from the joint statement of the 1st ASEAN-US Leaders' Meeting:
7. The President of the United States also expressed U.S. support for the establishment of the ASEAN Intergovernmental Commission on Human Rights, which demonstrates the commitment of the ASEAN Member States in the promotion and protection of human rights. The United States invited the members of the Commission to visit the United States in 2010 to consult with international experts in this field. The United States also supported the Human Rights Resource Centre for ASEAN, a track 2 initiative, with a university in Jakarta as the hub of the Centre and including a network of universities throughout ASEAN.
Then it gets to the funner stuff about Myanmar and human rights:
10. The Leaders of ASEAN welcomed the high level dialogue and the policy of the United States to engage with the Government of Myanmar, as indicated by the recent visit of U.S. officials to Myanmar. We expressed our hope that this effort, as well as ASEAN’s, would contribute to broad political and economic reforms and the process will be further enhanced in the future. We also underscored the importance of achieving national reconciliation and that the general elections to be held in Myanmar in 2010 must be conducted in a free, fair, inclusive and transparent manner in order to be credible to the international community. We called on the Government of Myanmar to help create the conditions for credible elections including by initiating a dialogue with all stakeholders to ensure that the process is fully inclusive. We also reiterated our continued support to the good offices of the United Nations Secretary-General in the democratization process in Myanmar. We also noted the Joint CommuniquĂ© of the 42nd ASEAN Foreign Ministers Meeting in Phuket, 20 July 2009.
Being cynical old me, the human rights stuff isn't as important as economic matters as the US seeks to shore up its political-economic authority in the region as China is asserting its influence. The important thing to keep in mind is that the US now poses no real objections to Myanmar's presence in forming a free trade area (preferential trade area, to be exact) with ASEAN. That in itself is, of course, a climbdown from the Bush administration:
13. We were pleased to note that economic relations between ASEAN and the United States continue to be strong and dynamic. We applauded the sizeable increase in trade and investment between ASEAN and the United States over the past several years. Two-way goods trade reached $178 billion in 2008, and, ASEAN is host to U.S. foreign direct investment of $153 billion, making it the favoured U.S. investment destination in Asia. We stressed the need to further enhance economic cooperation and partnership through new initiatives under the ASEAN-U.S. Trade and Investment Framework Arrangement (ASEAN-U.S. TIFA), to be agreed upon by the ASEAN Trade Ministers and the United States Trade Representative. We tasked the officials to initially focus on trade and customs facilitation. We also welcomed the meeting of ASEAN Finance Ministers and the U.S. Secretary of the Treasury on 12 November 2009 in Singapore as another element of broader engagement of ASEAN and the United States.
Bloomberg adds some colour on the latter point:
His [Obama's] predecessor, George W. Bush, scrapped a meeting with the bloc two years ago after Myanmar’s junta crushed the biggest anti-government protests since 1988. “That the meeting took place at all” was “very significant” given U.S. concerns over Myanmar, said Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, whose country hosted the gathering after the annual Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit.

Obama said he reaffirmed at the meeting that Myanmar should release detained opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi along with other political prisoners. Myanmar expressed appreciation for Obama’s decision to engage and said little else, Malaysia’s Prime Minister Najib Razak told reporters yesterday.

“We expected a bit more, but it was not forthcoming,” Najib said. “We hope this problem of national reconciliation and principles of democracy as a system to be adopted in Myanmar will become a reality sooner than later.”
Next up, we cover Obama's China visit which is still in progress.