US ‘pivot’ to Asia can help here

US President Barack Obama makes an offering at the Shwedagon pagoda in Yangon
US President Barack Obama makes an offering at the Shwedagon pagoda in Yangon last year. AFP

US ‘pivot’ to Asia can help here

Only one year since United States President Barack Obama’s historic visit to Myanmar and Cambodia – the first by a sitting US president – the lustre on the so-called American policy “pivot to Asia” seems to be fading fast, even as the rhetoric continues.

On the heels of Obama’s third cancelled trip to Asia, missing key summits in Indonesia and Brunei as well as long planned visits to the Philippines and Malaysia, it is now worth asking whether the US is using every resource to maximise its re-engagement with this critical part of the world – where many agree the world’s economic and political dynamism is rapidly shifting.

The Congressional Research Service, a nonpartisan analytical arm of the US Library of Congress, in its 2012 report “Pivot to the Pacific? The Obama Administration’s ‘Rebalancing’ Toward Asia”, detailed the policy pivot’s military and defence emphasis, from the shifting of naval forces in the Pacific to the permanent rotation of US Marines in Darwin, Australia.

The report added that many of Obama’s initiatives are actually extensions of programs from previous administrations, and concluded that the depth and breath of the US government’s “Asia pivot” have been exaggerated.

It is not too late to right the course though if the White House recognises that any pivot – or “rebalance” in today’s preferred parlance – to Asia needs to go well beyond defence and diplomacy, and fully include the region’s smallest nations whether Laos, Cambodia or Brunei.

The United States would be better served by a reboot of its policy and a greater emphasis on business, educational and cultural engagement in the region. This need not though be an attempt to match dollar for dollar China’s contributions, now Cambodia’s largest investor and donor.

And indeed, given Washington’s budget challenges, such an effort would seem unrealistic. China invested more than US$9 billion in Cambodia from 1994-2012, a sum that, according to a Center for Strategic and International Studies researcher, was eclipsed in January when Sinomach China Perfect Machinery Industry and China Railway Group pledged an additional US$11.2 billion.

Instead the US needs to engage smarter and more robustly. So, where to start?

First, the US would benefit from an all out government recommitment to free enterprise and free trade in the Asia-Pacific region. In tough economic times, free trade agreements (FTA) are routinely criticised with governments more focused on protecting domestic businesses from competition than on growing overall trade.

History has shown though that protectionism stifles productivity, ultimately hurting economies and consumers.

Critics counter with Obama’s support for the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) – a proposed regional FTA between the US and several Pacific Rim nations – as proof that the US is fully engaging in the area of trade.

Ambitious in form and no doubt years-to-come in the making, the TPP did not begin as a US initiative, and many wonder why the US did not pursue bilateral or smaller regional agreements that might have been concluded more quickly, including a US-ASEAN Free Trade Agreement.

Other nations already benefit from such agreements, including China, a major investor in not just Cambodia, but also throughout Southeast Asia and East Asia.

Between 2000 and 2012, China’s share of East Asia’s trade nearly doubled from 10.2 to 20 per cent by some estimates. During this same period, the US share of East Asia’s trade fell by 50 per cent, dropping from 19.5 to 9.5 per cent.

Second, from an educational perspective, while the US remains the overwhelming No 1 destination for students studying outside their home country, the American share of that growing market is declining as other nations make it easier for qualified foreign students to study in their universities.

To counter this, a US educational pivot would recognise the value – both economic and diplomatic – of young people from throughout Asia, including from Cambodia, travelling to and studying in the United States.

Perhaps, the US can take a page out of Australia’s playbook and introduce efforts to better coordinate the university and visa application processes.

Third, while America’s cultural presence, particularly US “pop culture”, is common throughout Asia, a strong case can be made for greater support for “cultural diplomacy”.

A renewed US cultural pivot to the Asia-Pacific would include policy changes and encouragement of public-private partnerships that would increase visits of US artists and experts, showcasing America’s diversity, strengths and core values.

Much more though can be done, with and without formal US government support, to help Cambodians to “fulfill their dreams” in running their own business and in helping American entrepreneurs and businesses succeed in Cambodia.

According to CSIS, while companies such as Chevron, Ford and GE have concluded deals in Cambodia, the US presence remains primarily aid-based. Though the US provided more than US$121 million to Cambodia for a range of initiatives, this number pales to the amount of Chinese investment and assistance.

Despite Obama’s problems in Washington with a divided US Congress, though, there’s still time for a bipartisan “re-boot” of the “rebalance”. This would follow up on defence and diplomatic visits with a substantive “whole-of-America” policy that encourages greater US business, educational and cultural involvement in Cambodia and across the Asia-Pacific.

Such an enhanced policy directive must go beyond a bunch of disjointed programs and make real Obama’s rhetoric that “in the Asia-Pacific in the 21st century, the United States of America is all in”.

Curtis S Chin served as US Ambassador to the Asian Development Bank under presidents George W Bush and Barack Obama (2007-2010) and is a managing director with advisory firm RiverPeak Group, LLC. Jose B Collazo is a frequent commentator on Southeast Asia and an associate of RiverPeak Group.

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