Notes from the Field

Analyzing America’s Role in China, Indonesia and Singapore

February 18, 2009

Less than a month after taking the oath of office, President Barack Obama has shown he wants to engage with Asia in a serious, meaningful way. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s first overseas trip is not to Europe or the Middle East, but to Asia. Her high-profile, week-long trip to Japan, Indonesia, South Korea, and China was preceded by a major foreign policy speech on Asia in New York City. While it is unclear whether Secretary Clinton read The Asia Foundation’s “America’s Role in Asia” report, there is a remarkable similarity in what Secretary Clinton says about how the Obama administration wants to move forward in Asia, and the findings and recommendations articulated in the report. As the report states: “Asia needs to be accorded unique attention given its inherent importance to the United States. Asia contains more than half of the world’s population, produces more than 30 percent of global exports, and controls a much larger share of the world’s savings pool.”

Secretary Clinton’s trip to Asia comes at a time when the U.S. is facing enormous challenges, both at home and abroad — from a failing banking system, millions of jobs lost, wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, to the threat of nuclear proliferation, global warming, and energy security, among others. What makes Asians (both governments and their people) hopeful about Secretary Clinton’s trip is that the tone of her speech is fundamentally different from the previous administration; she and President Obama are emphasizing a need to work in “partnership” with Asian nations. Her trip to Asia is an important signal that the Obama administration is attaching greater priority to both Northeast and Southeast Asia.

Earlier this week, The Asia Foundation presented its “America’s Role in Asia” reports in China, Indonesia, and Singapore; two of the three countries Secretary Clinton is visiting. Foundation Trustee, Ambassador J. Stapleton Roy, who served as ambassador to all three nations during his distinguished diplomatic career, participated on the three panels along with Asians who played a prominent role in the project: Dr. Wu Xinbo, Vice Director of the Center for American Studies at Fudan University in Shanghai, Dr. Jusuf Wanandi, Vice Chairman of the Board in the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Jakarta, and Ambassador Tommy Koh, Chairman of the Institute of Policy Studies and Singapore’s Ambassador-at-Large. The discussion in all three nations was rich and the excitement felt by Chinese, Indonesians, and Singaporeans of Secretary Clinton visiting the region was palpable.

In all the discussions, the principle concern is how the U.S. and Asia can recover from the global economic meltdown. Because of declining U.S. imports, 20 million Chinese workers have been laid off from their factories; Indonesia’s exports are down by 20 percent; and Singapore, like the U.S., is forecast to experience negative growth in 2009. The U.S. and China are the only two countries capable of pulling the rest of the world out of the global economic crisis. Therefore, both China and the U.S. must work together and contribute to each other’s recovery. The Obama administration sees China as part of the solution in addressing global economic challenges. In addition to economics, finance, and trade, China and the U.S. must also work constructively together in addressing the challenges of nuclear non-proliferation, stability on the Korean peninsula, climate change, energy security, pandemic diseases, among others. Human rights will remain an issue (and perhaps an irritant) in U.S.-China relations, but headway on this issue may be made by discussing human rights in the context of developing and strengthening good governance predicated on rule of law, accountability, and transparency.

Secretary Clinton arrived in Indonesia yesterday with a positive agenda that includes the issues of education, trade, climate change, energy, and food security. Clearly Secretary Clinton is listening to what Asian leaders are saying. These same issues were articulated to be of importance to Indonesia in a speech given by Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono in Washington in November 2008. Since the Bali bombings in October 2002, terrorism has been an important bilateral issue in U.S.-Indonesian relations. While still an important issue, the Obama administration will make terrorism one of many areas of cooperation in the “comprehensive” bilateral relationship. Moreover, there is also a high expectation in Jakarta that Secretary Clinton’s visit will lay the groundwork for President Obama to visit Indonesia (where he spent part of his childhood) to give a speech from the country with the world’s largest Muslim population in the effort to build a bridge between the U.S. and the global Islamic community.

In her speech in New York City, Secretary Clinton said an Obama administration wants to work more closely with the countries of Southeast Asia to help the region live up to its recently promulgated charter under ASEAN, which promotes the values of good governance, rule of law, and the protection of human rights. There is speculation that the U.S. may join Japan, China, India, Australia, and others in signing ASEAN’s Treaty of Amity and Cooperation (TAC). This could represent a significant step by the U.S. as part of a larger initiative to demonstrate a more defined, integrative approach in dealing with the region. Moreover, it would show Southeast Asia, and the nations of the Asia-Pacific more broadly, that the U.S. is prepared to engage more deeply in regional institutions such as the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) forum, the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF)and perhaps even the East Asia Summit (EAS).

Given all the unprecedented challenges President Obama is facing so early in his administration, Secretary Clinton’s trip to Asia this week is illustrative that the president and his foreign policy team want to contribute constructively to the challenges and opportunities throughout the Asia-Pacific in the effort to foster peace, stability, and economic prosperity.

John Brandon is The Asia Foundation’s Director for International Relations programs. He can be reached at jbrandon@asiafound-dc.org.

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