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The rise of CLMT and the need for more G-2

The rise of CLMT and the need for more G-2

Published: 16/11/2012 at 12:00 AM

Newspaper section: News

Newly re-elected United States President Barack Obama is due for a visit to Southeast Asia at its most momentous and contentious juncture in contemporary times.

By happenstance and design, Mr Obama will leave tense and probably inconclusive negotiations over America's "fiscal cliff" with congressional leaders in favour of a presidential shuttle between Thailand and Myanmar to culminate with the East Asia Summit (EAS) in Cambodia. By not postponing "cliff" talks until after the EAS, Mr Obama has irked critics and even supporters for leaving a hung jury and potential fiscal dire straits until his return, as tax hikes and budget cuts may become automatic, not a good start at home for his second term.

Such deep-seated and politically polarised domestic problems impinge on America's role in Asia and beyond.

Under Mr Obama's watch, the US has "pivoted" and "rebalanced" its foreign policy intentions and resources towards Asia for the 21st century where the stakes will be the highest and most consequential.

But his acute domestic constraints and persistent quagmires in the Middle East, South Asia and elsewhere will hinder the American's wherewithal to manoeuvre in Asia. The Obama pivot is a smart strategy but America's resource constraints and geographical dilemmas will be its long-term spoiler.

Yet the lead-up to and during Mr Obama's regional visit will register few of these inconvenient complexities. As the leader of the preeminent superpower, Mr Obama is being treated like an unrivalled political rock star.

The indiscreet and unrefined American style of doing things have already raised local eyebrows as secret service agents have practically taken over key locations in Bangkok to provide presidential protection, with their Thai counterparts playing second fiddle.

Thailand has hosted all kinds of world leaders but few are accompanied by so much fuss over personal security. Indeed, Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao follows Mr Obama to Bangkok routinely and quietly.

The obvious symbolic significance of Mr Obama's visit will have to be matched by substance on the ground. The most striking take-away from the Obama shuttle diplomacy is likely to be the focus on mainland Southeast Asia. It is a sub-region that is pivotal to America's pivot.

America, the sea power with vast continental resources, wants to reclaim its place in a different fashion than when it was last here during the Indochina wars half a century ago.

China, a land and resident power, has always been here geo-strategically with historical influence over centuries. The middle and middling states around here have smartly hedged between the two giants from far and near.

Unsurprisingly, Mr Obama will land first in Bangkok as a gesture to an old friend of 180 years and a treaty ally through the Cold War. He then hops to Yangon for strategic, symbolic and personal support and encouragement of Myanmar's reform momentum.

Phnom Penh is the final stop for the increasingly important strategic dialogue among the 18-member East Asia Summit at leaders' level.

The Obama visit sheds new light on this sub-region. Mainland Southeast Asia around the Mekong is increasingly leaning towards Beijing's orbit in a new formation that could be labelled "CLMT" _ Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, and Thailand. A generation ago, the mainland half of Asean was known as the _ CLMV _ to denote the newer members of the regional organisation, "V" being Vietnam.

But the conflict in the South China Sea, where China's aggressive role is fiercely resisted and America's is warmly welcomed by Asean maritime states, has set Hanoi apart.

At the same time, Thai ties to China have warmed inexorably. For example, Thailand's position on the South China Sea has been that it is beyond Asean as a whole and should be settled bilaterally.

Although beset with historical enmity, China and Vietnam have cooperated deeply at the highest levels on trade, investment, diplomacy and so forth.

But their rift over the South China Sea has trumped and soured the bilateral relationship. The Philippines is even more confrontational vis-a-vis Beijing, and has leaned on its century-old patron in the US for backing and reassurance.

The same might be said of other nations wary of Chinese intentions in the contested seas, ranging from Japan and Australia to Malaysia and Indonesia. Through a new system of bolstered treaty alliances and strategic partnerships, US sea power will deny Beijing's dominance of maritime Southeast Asia.

Moreover, the interests and concerns of maritime Southeast Asian states are increasingly divergent from the CLMT, which were either silent or supportive of Cambodia's pro-China stance at the annual regional ministerial meeting in Phnom Penh in July 2012, when Asean failed to produce a joint statement due to the insistence of the Philippines and Vietnam to include language on the South China Sea disputes.

Mainland Southeast Asia's CLMT are growing as a large sub-regional market when southern China is included.

It appears that maritime Southeast Asia is increasingly leaning towards Washington, whereas mainland Southeast Asia is more influenced by Beijing. But Mr Obama's presidential foray should not try to antagonise or hem in Beijing. China and the US have deep and broad relations and commercial ties. The Chinese are America's largest creditor and the US is China's largest export market. The two giants must stand together and not toe-to-toe.

Regional discussions and meetings on peace and stability in Cambodia should thus focus on the ever-elusive and contested regional architecture. The discredited notion of a G-2, whereby the Beijing-Washington amity would dictate regional outcomes, should be revisited up to a point.

A working regional framework must rely on G-2 understanding and accommodation. The Asean states have more to gain from a partial G-2 than a complete rivalry between the two superpowers.

If China can step back on South China Sea claims and the US can reassure Beijing of its benign rebalance, both maritime and mainland Asean would have more in common under the regional umbrella, which can act as a bridge and linchpin of regional security and stability in Asia.

Thitinan Pongsudhirak is Director of the Institute of Security and International Studies, Faculty of Political Science, Chulalongkorn University.


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