Who, ASEAN wonders, will succeed the first Pacific president?

November 24, 2015 09:10
Will Barack Obama's successor display as much interest in the Asia-Pacific? Photo: AFP

Barack Obama, who has dubbed himself “America’s first Pacific president”, made his sixth trip to the region last week to attend meetings in Manila and Kuala Lumpur.

But now that there is little more than a year left of his presidency, the question on the minds of leaders of Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) countries is whether his successor, whoever she or he may be, will maintain this interest in the region -- and, if not, whether they should seek to make accommodations with China.

This was evident during the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) meeting in Manila but especially so in Kuala Lumpur, where a series of meetings were held, including the US-ASEAN Summit and the East Asia Summit, both of which Obama attended.

“The president himself has made six trips to this region, every year, attending the Asean meetings,” Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong of Singapore said.

“This is greatly appreciated, and it’s important to know that this will continue beyond November 2016.”

Obama himself, of course, could make no promises for his successor, saying only that it depends on who wins the next election.

But Lee pointed out, rightly, that American interests in the region are “enduring and worthy of attention and focus”.

Lee did not say so, but one of the main issues in the region is China’s growing power and influence.

His father, Lee Kuan Yew, Singapore's founding prime minister, had in retirement traveled to Washington to ask the United States to remain in the region, saying the American presence was vital as Japan and India combined were unable to balance China.

So far, the South China Sea has not figured much in the US presidential campaign, but, for Southeast Asians, there is a lot riding on the outcome of next November's election.

If the US decides to withdraw from the region, then the countries there, including American allies, will have little choice but to bend with the wind and accommodate China.

The outlook for the region without the US would be bleak.

Even now, China throws its weight around, unafraid of Washington and even less afraid of Asian countries, including Japan.

Look at what happened this past week.

In Manila, where the APEC meeting was held, China decreed that the South China Sea must not be put on the agenda.

The Philippines agreed that APEC was meant for economic issues.

After the meeting, China’s state-owned Global Times newspaper published a gloating commentary headlined “Declining clout prevents US from stirring up Asia-Pacific”.

It said that China, with its growing influence in the Asia-Pacific region, is now “capable of going toe-to-toe with the US over core interests”.

From Manila, Obama, along with other Asia-Pacific leaders, flew to Kuala Lumpur to take part in the East Asia Summit.

Obama has found it difficult for the US to “pivot” to Asia, because of the many crises in the Middle East.

Last week, terrorist attacks in Paris and Mali forced him to focus on terrorism rather than Southeast Asia.

But the South China Sea was very much discussed at the East Asia Summit, which was attended by leaders from 18 countries, including Premier Li Keqiang.

The Chinese premier urged “countries outside the region” in a speech to avoid taking action that may cause tension in the South China Sea.

He primarily meant the US, but Japan was included as well.

Premier Shinzo Abe, while attending the G20 meeting in Turkey, expressed concern over China's activities in the South China Sea.

“Japan is not a party concerned in the South China Sea issue,” a Chinese foreign ministry spokesman complained and, in words that can be interpreted as a threat, said: “Japan’s relevant words and deeds run counter to the momentum of improving bilateral ties.”

Vice Foreign Minister Liu Zhenmin said at a news conference in Kuala Lumpur that China would put in military facilities on its artificial islands.

President Xi Jinping, while on a state visit to the US in September, had pledged that “China does not intend to pursue militarization” of its islands, but the vice minister argued that installing military facilities was not militarization.

Liu said that construction on the islands was intended to reduce the “hardship” of those living on these newly created islands.

"Building and maintaining necessary military facilities, this is what is required for China's national defense and for the protection of those islands and reefs," Reuters quoted Liu as saying.

The Chinese narrative seems to be that the military facilities are needed to protect the civilian facilities, which will “provide more public services” to everyone.

Sounds like China’s neighbors should be grateful.

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Frank Ching opened The Wall Street Journal’s Bureau in China in 1979. He is now a Hong Kong-based writer on Chinese affairs.