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US has become less relevant to Asean – academic

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October 15, 2008

US has become less relevant to Asean – academic
Asean will remain a low priority in the United States’ foreign policy whether Barack Obama or John McCain becomes the next US President, despite the two candidates' past links to the region, Malaysian news agency Bernama quoted an academic as saying at a conference in Kuala Lumpur Tuesday.

"We have to accept the fact that we are not their (US) highest priority but what we are asking are rational favours. Instead of ad hoc assistance, as well as investments coming down in recent years, the US can help by investing in areas like infrastructures," said Manu Bhaskaran of the Singapore Institute of International Affairs during a session on "US-Asean Relations with a New White House and Congress".

The speaker said he based his opinion on the changing nature of economies and political scenarios between the US and the 10-member Asean, as well as the depleting resources that the former could deploy to the region.

According to Bhaskaran, the US was becoming less and less relevant to Asean in terms of trade, citing Thailand's export to the country, which dropped by half and accounts for only 10 percent in the last 10 years while foreign direct investment to the region was way below Japan and the Europe.

"Not only are the direct ties weakening, the US is also falling in many areas, such as there is no Free Trade Agreement with Asean. With the financial crisis in the US which will affect employment and the people, the attitude towards foreign policy would also change and the next Congress, which could be under Democrats, will look inward and favour protectionism," he said.

McCain, the Republican candidate, was a prisoner of war during the Vietnam war while his Democrat rival, Obama, grew up in Indonesia.

Bhaskaran said that despite the current shortcomings, the US should focus more attention on Asean and take a leaf from China which had huge interest around the world but never neglected the region and was always represented by its prime minister and foreign minister at the annual Asean Summit.

"We are low priority, unless one Asean country embarks on a nuclear programme or block the Straits of Melaka (jokingly). It's important that the US focus on a few things with their limited resources," he said.

Peter Manikas, Asia Programmes Director at the National Democratic Institute, said both Obama and McCain did not touch on Asean during their ongoing campaigns as their focus was more on conflict areas like Iraq and Afghanistan.

"Iraq and Afghanistan will drain resources from other parts of the world. Obama had said that he would cut foreign's most vulnerable and always the first victim of fiscal policy," he added.

Dr Catharin Dalpino, Director of Thai Studies Programme at Georgetown University, said it was good that the region had no prominent place in both candidates' campaign trails as it would be difficult for them to keep to any
promise made once in office.

However, she said the new administration would be facing several key issues related to US-Asean ties, particularly whether to sign the Asean Treaty of Amity and Cooperation (TAC) and whether to seek entry into the East Asia Summit (EAS).

As to dissatisfaction over the lack of participation of high-ranking US government officials in Asean-related meetings, Dr Dalpino said the Asia Pacific Cooperation (Apec) Summit to be hosted by Singapore in 2009 could be a good platform for the new US President to engage closely with the region, including making official visits to member countries during the period.

Asia Foundation vice-chairman Dr Harry Harding said that while the financial crisis in the US could further affect its engagement in the region, the diverse political structure would also continue to pose a problem for its relations with Asean.

"It's a question of how the US wants to engage and maintain balanced ties with each Asean country that has its own political structure. For instance, the question of Myanmar...if the US signs the treaty, is it in any way accepting the legitimacy of the Myanmar government?

"And if the US seeks membership in EAS, what price do we have to pay and what is the benefit? said Harding.

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